© 2017 Piper Templeton. All Rights Reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher/author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Dylan sat at his old spinet piano in his basement apartment cluttered with guitars, amplifiers and left-over pizza boxes. The late morning sounds of his old Queens neighborhood blared outside—utility trucks rumbling, horns honking, jackhammers buzzing down the road. He started playing the opening bars to “Imagine.” Whenever he sat at the piano, he began with “Imagine.”
The baby upstairs started crying. He stopped playing. He got up, walked across the room to the kitchen area, and grabbed a can of Coke from the fridge. By the time he got back to the living room, the crying had stopped. His mom knew how to soothe his half-sister. It still boggled his mind that his mother and her new husband had a baby together. At 18, he had a baby sister. Half sister. He shuddered and started practicing one of the new tunes on the guitar. The guys planned to come over to rehearse after his shift at the pizza shop.
He sat back down at the piano where his eyes focused for a moment on the framed picture sitting on top of it: Him, his mom and dad, when it was just the three of them. Central Park. They looked so happy. Were they happy now that they lived apart with new families? “Imagine” started emanating from the piano as if his fingers worked separately from his mind.
When he heard the door click, he turned around.
“Hey, son!” Nick Rearden ducked under the door frame and walked across the small carpeted space between the door and his son. Dylan turned to face the piano again and struck the keys absent-mindedly.
“What? No hug for your old man?” asked Nick. He leaned over and wrapped his arm around Dylan’s shoulder. Dylan stiffened.
Nick cleared some papers off the office swivel chair and took a seat. Then he wheeled himself near the piano. He looked around the apartment.
“Nice set-up you got here, son. This works, this works.”
Dylan shrugged. “I guess.”
“You got some privacy now. You don’t have to worry about your stepsisters barging into your room. And you got a better to place to practice. I’m going to repair some of that Sheetrock over there for you,” he said, pointing to a damaged portion of the wall. “Build you some shelves for your music stuff. What else you need?”
Dylan kept one hand on the piano but halfway turned to face him. “I told you about that leak in the bathroom sink”—
Nick slapped the top of his head. “Damn! Dylan, I forgot all about that. These days, if I don’t write something down…” He stood. “I’m going to go get the tools from my truck and take care of it right now.”
“No need. Mom called a plumber.”
“Now what did she go and do that for? They cost a fortune and I could have done it in no time.”
“I waited a couple of weeks. You never showed up.”
“Look, son,” he said, taking his seat again. He leaned forward in the chair. “You know you can call me anytime.”
Dylan looked at the piano keys. “I did call you.”
“But you should’ve called me again to remind me.”
“I know you have a lot on your plate these days.”
Dylan resumed “Imagine.”
Nick stood up and playfully gripped Dylan’s shoulders. “It’s fitting you’re playing that. You’ll never believe the call I got today for a job.”
When Dylan continued playing, Nick let go and stood back. “This official sounding dude calls up, you know the kind—like a personal assistant type. He said his employer wants me to come out and give the lady an estimate on an indoor Oriental waterfall type fountain.”
“People say Asian now, Dad.”
“Okay, okay. Whatever. Anyway, he gives me the address. It’s The Dakota Building.”
Dylan continued playing.
“Don’t you get it? The Dakota.”
“Son, that’s where John Lennon lived.”
Dylan stopped playing. “It’s also where he died.”
“I know. But I think this job is for Yoko Ono.”
Dylan turned around. “Come on, Dad. Probably 500 people live in that building.”
“But how many want Oriental—Asian waterfall type fountains? And how many have personal assistants who only refer to their boss as the lady like it’s some big secret?”
“Even if it is, what’s the big deal? You think Lennon’s ghost haunts the place or something?”
“Of course not. But I want you to come with me. How cool would it be to see it?!”
Dylan looked down at the carpet.
“You might see his piano.”
Dylan’s eyes lit up for a moment.
“You can come as my assistant on this job.”
“I thought Jacob worked as your assistant.”
“Yeah. You know, the stepson who works with you and goes to ballgames with you all the time.”
Nick sighed. “Come on, son. You know that’s not fair. Jacob’s interested in construction work. He’s taking it up in trade school. You know I’d do the same for you if you wanted it. And sports—you never cared for them too much.”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t want to go places with you.”
“So come with me this evening out to the Dakota.”
“I really can’t. I have to work. Then the guys are coming over to rehearse.”
“I believe you. I believe you. The same guys that used to hang around at the house?”
“No. We kind of drifted after moving across town, you know.”
“So what are you rehearsing?”
“We’re going to make a recording at this little studio over in Flushing.”
“Hey, that’s great!”
“No, it’s just something J.D. set up. His dad knows someone. Anyone really can go make a recording. It will be cool, though, you know, working with the real equipment. They’re even going to have one of their engineers sit in.”
“Of course it will.”
The two sat in silence for a few moments. Nick stood up. “Well, I better get going. I have a couple of sites to visit before I head over to see Yoko.”
Dylan smiled. “Maybe Yoko.”
“It’s her. It’s her.”
Nick gave his son a warm pat on the back. Dylan relaxed. As his dad walked toward the door, Dylan said, “Hey, dad?”
Nick turned around. “Yeah?”
“Our recording time is 4:00 tomorrow afternoon. If you, you know, want to come or anything like that, you can.”
A smile washed over Nick’s face. He pointed to Dylan. “You bet I’ll be there.”
Nick left. Dylan turned around and started playing “Imagine.”
When I journeyed home in the summer to help my mother recover from a hip replacement surgery, I finally faced my past. I rarely set foot back there since graduating college. How could I? So after nearly a decade of barely dipping my toe into the suburb that claimed McDonald’s as its main attraction, I found myself committed to spending an entire six weeks there.
I strolled around the old neighborhood. The same neatly trimmed shrubbery surrounded the same modest frame houses, and I could have sworn even some of the same sedans dotted the street that I grew up on. Flower beds and manicured bushes decorated the yards. People took pride in pretty here. It’s where I left my ugly.
Old Mr. Newton sat on his porch whittling—yep, whittling. I didn’t know that was a thing anymore. Age perception is funny. As a child, I considered him old. Before I went away to college, he remained old. Now, he’s still the same old from back then. Mrs. Newton opened the door and started yelling at him that lunch was getting cold. When she spotted me, she stopped in mid-fussing and called me over with a smile.
“Is that you, Emma Robichaux?”
“Yes, Miss Newton. How are you? Hi, Mr. Newton.”
Mr. Newton waved. I stood on the top step as she interrogated me. What have I been doing with my life? Teaching middle school kids English and Social Studies. Was I married? No. One prospect back in New Orleans. Was I back because of my mother’s surgery? Yes. And to perhaps face up to the incident all those years ago. Then she glanced around the neighborhood and lowered her voice to a loud whisper.
“Widow Hayes is losing it, I’m afraid.”
I cringed. “Why do you say that?” My heart sank.
“I went to see her the other day because I was selling raffle tickets for the church. I knock on her door. No answer. But her car’s in the driveway.”
“She could have been out walking. She takes walks, Irma,” chimed in Mr. Newton.
She turned around to face her husband. “I know that! But my point is she was home.” She turned back to me. “Something made me look around the side of the house. There I see her little potting shed with the door ajar. So I figured I’d go talk to her in there about the raffle tickets. If I sell 10 books, I get a free bread making machine.”
“What do you need with that? We have loaf pans. People never needed a machine to bake bread,” countered her husband.
“Would you hush, Harry Robert!”
I caught a grin from her husband.
“Anyway, I walk up to the little shed, and I hear her in there. She’s mumbling. I sneak a peek through the door, and she’s fooling with her pots in there, and she’s talking.” She paused. “Nobody was in there but her!”
“Ohhh, well, maybe she’s lonely.”
“She thinks her daughter was there. I heard her say, ‘Maggie,’ and she murmured so low I couldn’t hear what she said.”
My knees got weak, and I leaned against the banister.
Mr. Newton stood up. “Are you okay?” The dear old man struggled up from his stoop with his cane.
I held out my hand. “I’m okay, Mr. Newton. Don’t get up.” I looked at my watch. “I need to go fix my mom’s lunch.” I scurried down the steps like the hyperactive squirrels that populated the neighborhood.
Mom and I sat at her kitchen table looking out of the bay window. A blue jay chased a little sparrow away from the sycamore branch. I got up and poured my mother another Coke. Then I started scrubbing the Formica countertop, trying to erase a smudge until I realized it was part of the pattern.
“Relax, honey. Sit.”
“I gotta keep busy, Mom.”
“What’s bothering you?”
“Mothers can tell.”
“How’s your teaching going?”
I wrung the sponge out and squirted more cleanser on the counter. “Well, too many of my kids underperformed on the LEAP test. I’ll be on probation next year.”
“No wonder you’re on edge. You ought to get out of that. There are so many other things you could do, honey. Teaching isn’t what it used to be. You could make more money doing any number of things; it’s so stressful on you… “
My mother’s concerns about the perils of my profession faded to the background. I agreed with everything she said. Only no one knew: I had to teach. Was it a passion? No. More like a compulsion.
The next morning after clearing the breakfast dishes, I ventured out again into the neighborhood. I headed towards Widow Hayes’ house. Then I slowed down. Maybe I should put this off until the end of my stay. I saw her cottage with blue siding and white shutters, the front porch adorned with potted plants, and the flower boxes hanging from the railings. My eyes rested on the front door. Particularly the glass storm door. That’s the door we’d see Maggie Hayes standing behind, arms folded, staring out at nothing. We’d also see her wading in the stream that lined the woods behind the subdivision. She’d pick buttercups along the road on the way to school and gaze at them like she held a rare orchid. She confounded us.
A Lexus pulled up beside me and the window came down.
“Emma Robichaux, is that you!?”
I glanced at the driver, blonde weaves framing her head and bouncing off her shoulders. Kiersten Malloy, a face I hoped to never see again.
She turned off the engine. “Get in. Wait ‘til you feel these seats.”
I entered the car on the passenger’s side. At least this delayed my mission to the Hayes house.
“Girlfriend, why haven’t you accepted my friend request on Facebook?” She jutted her bottom lip out in her signature pout she used growing up.
“Oh, I’m not on there too much. I guess I overlooked it,” I fibbed. “Nice car,” I said, hoping to divert her.
“An anniversary gift from my hubby. He’s so busy buying up real estate and such, I’m lucky he found the time to score this baby for me.”
“Nice, very nice. So what brings you back here? Visiting your parents?”
“Oh, girl, my parents moved across the lake long ago. Near us. It’s so much better over there. No rift raff like there is over here.”
“I just pass through to check on the house. My parents rent it out and I do drive-bys to make sure the tenants are keeping it up.”
I wondered what she thought when she passed Widow Hayes’ house on her “drive-bys.”
“So, girl, I heard you became a teacher. I thought, that can’t be true, not the chick that skipped classes, smoked in the bathroom, served I don’t know how many detentions.”
I raised my hand. “Guilty, I’m afraid.”
She looked at my hands. “I see you’re not married. Dating anyone?”
She waited. “Well, do tell.”
I sighed. “What do you want to know?”
“What does he do?”
The corner of her lip curled. Another facial leftover from those growing up days. “Oh, nice.”
“He’s a contractor.” I lied.
Her eyes lit up. “Ah. They can make the money, girl. My hubby hires contractors all the time, and I hear him go on about their billings.”
“Well, Kiersten, I better get going. I’m here to help my mom so I can’t be gone from the house too long.”
She reached in her purse and pulled out her smart phone. “Not before you give me your number.”
I reluctantly recited it.
I started to open the door. Then I stopped. “Kiersten, do you ever think about Maggie Hayes?”
She flipped back her weaved blonde hair. “No, I don’t. Why would you bring that up? It happened like a thousand years ago.”
Maggie lorded over my conscience, ever present in the foreground or background of my mind. I stared at Kiersten in disbelief. “Miss Newton told me Widow Hayes—“
Kiersten held out her hand. “Whoa. I’m not responsible for that dotty old lady. She always was a dotty old lady even before Maggie—“
“She’s a person, Kiersten. A person that never hurt a soul, to my knowledge.”
“Every living person hurts other people. It’s what we do as humans. It’s wired in our DNA or whatever. Look, people make their own choices.”
I got out of the car. Before I shut the door I looked at Kiersten and said, “My boyfriend’s a carpenter. He works on a construction crew. And I like it like that.”
I turned and faced the Hayes home.
I remembered my mother’s face when I walked in the door that spring of my senior year. Happy times. Supposedly. Her face drained of all color, she asked me to sit down. Tears welled up in her eyes as she whispered, “Maggie Hayes drowned in the lake. She’s dead.”
Maggie bugged all the kids, especially Kiersten and me. We considered her weird. Not only staring out at nothing but also sitting in the grass, peeling that filmy gunk off of plants. She holed up in that potting shed in the summer, when all the other kids ran the streets. I suppose we were too stupid to realize she must have wanted to hide there, away from the taunts and rejections.
Dashed hope killed her. Maggie had made the honor roll, and her literature essay won best in regionals while Kiersten and I teetered on the edge of summer school if our grades didn’t improve. The two of us watched weird Maggie beam in the hallways. A peaceful glow surrounded her.
“She’s gotten cocky,” sneered Kiersten. We huddled behind the gym, puffing on Virginia Slims.
“I’ll say.” I stomped the cigarette out on the damp ground. Lighting up another, I switched subjects to Kiersten’s big party Saturday night.
Her eyes lit up. “That’s it! What does that troglodyte want more than anything?”
I shrugged and French inhaled, and then watched smoke circles clouding up the air I breathed.
“To be one of us. To belong!”
“Maybe we should just leave her alone, Kiersten.”
Kiersten jutted out her lip. “Humph. Be like that. But I think Miss Maggie needs to be taught a lesson. Come on. It will be fun.”
All Kiersten came up with was the old “tell her the wrong date and wrong house, so she’ll show up and feel like a fool.” I can’t believe I went along with that. Ignoring and rejecting her was bad enough. Why? Because we could. Because she behaved in a way we considered odd. Had I been a messed up, underprivileged kid with some kind of disadvantage, maybe—maybe—I could justify my cruelty. Nope. My peers considered me one of the cool, pretty girls; my parents took good care of me.
I now seek out those damaged kids—the Maggie kids—in the school I teach. I protect them and try to bolster them. I also attempt to reach the bullies. I’m good at it. While I lack effectiveness in getting grammar and geography across to middle-schoolers, I succeed with this. Grammar bores me; so do state capitols and civics. Kids know when their teacher is bored. But let one of my sixth graders become a target, and they’ll feel my passion.
The potting shed door was ajar. Walking alongside the Hayes home toward the shed, I heard mumbling. I stopped, wondering if I should intrude. Then I looked at the backyard—what a gorgeous garden Widow Hayes kept! Beds of blooming flowers colored the grounds like one of those French paintings come to life. I never fooled with gardening or paid much attention to it, but I stood there in awe of the beauty surrounding me.
After taking a few deep breaths, I ventured toward the potting shed and peeked inside. I saw Widow Hayes with her hand shovel, mixing soil and planting bulbs, talking. I knocked.
She turned around. “Can I help you?”
“Mrs. Hayes, I don’t know if you remember me…”
She stood and came closer. “Ah, yes, you’re the Robichaux girl. Right?”
I nodded. Shaking inside, I asked if I could come in.
“Sure, if you’d like.”
“Your yard is beyond beautiful.”
“I keep it that way for Maggie. She always connected with nature.”
“That’s kind of why I’m here,” I said, voice trembling. “Do you mind if we talk about her?”
“Mind? Everyone’s still so afraid to say her name around me. I love talking about my daughter. I love talking to my daughter.”
I stood there wide-eyed.
She sat on the workbench and invited me to sit beside her. “Oh, I hear the jabber going on. They think I’m off my rocker because so and so heard me talking to Maggie. If they’d only stop and think. I know my daughter is not physically here. But she’s here”—she held out her hands—“and she’s here,” she said, placing her hand on her heart. “I feel so close to her amongst the pots and seeds and soil. Maggie didn’t just love to see the blooms. She cherished the whole process, mixing the soil, planting the seeds and bulbs, weeding, clipping, pruning.” She held up a handful of dirt and let it run through her fingers. “Maggie’s part of this. She nurtured this ground and soil. Nature awed her. I’d find her staring out the window and ask what she was looking at. It may have been the way the sunrays highlighted a honeysuckle bush.”
I suddenly felt smaller than a blade of grass. I started to tell her about the cruel party trick but she continued.
“Maggie found acceptance in nature because she couldn’t find it with people.” She teared up. “Until it no longer sufficed. I missed the signs. I had to work so hard after my husband passed. I worked double shifts at the hospital whenever they came available. I had to. I did my best. But it wasn’t enough.” A couple of tears rolled down her weather-beaten face.
“Mrs. Hayes, I need to tell you something.” I cleared my throat. “I was cruel to Maggie,” I began.
She eyed me with suspicion. “I knew the kids treated her bad, never included her. She never pinpointed anyone.”
“The night before she died…” I began. Then I stopped.
“Ah, yes. I’ll forever cherish that last evening I spent with her. I didn’t have to work a shift that night, so I cooked her favorite dinner—veggie lasagna—and I baked a peach pie. Then we sat at the table and played Rummy.”
“And then, then after that, I guess, she got dressed to go to the party?”
Widow Hayes eyed me quizzically. “Party? No. Maggie stayed with me that whole evening.”
I awkwardly confessed about the party trick.
“Ah, yes. I remember now. You girls didn’t fool her. She figured it out ahead of time. My Maggie was smart. It hurt her though, and I take it that’s what you were after.”
I hung my head and nodded. “For what it’s worth, a day doesn’t pass that I don’t think about what I did to her.”
“Well, I suppose that’s something. I’m afraid if you’re looking for comfort, though, Emma, I’m the wrong one to give it to you.”
“Oh, no, ma’am. I wanted to face you and tell you what I did. I figured that’s what pushed her over the edge to, you know, end it.”
Widow Hayes stood and looked out at the garden. Then she turned and faced me. “Wrong again. Maggie left me a note dated two weeks prior. I found it in her room, after.” She puttered around the shed, straightening empty ceramic pots. Then she sat down again. “She had planned this for a couple of weeks. She was waiting for bad weather. ‘Mother, please know I love you but I must leave this world. Its beauty is no longer enough. By the time you read this, I will have swum out into the lake when the waves and tides become treacherous, swim and swim too far from shore to make it back even if I tried. I know your strength will get you through this, and you’ll be able to live your life without the burden of a daughter who never fit into this earth she loved so much. I’ll see you on the other side.’”
The tears finally trickled down my cheeks. Widow Hayes walked over to her row of pots and starting mixing soil.
“Are you going to be okay?” I asked.
“I carry on for Maggie. Keeping busy is the key. I keep busy with church and volunteering. And keeping things beautiful around here.”
I stood there in silence a few more moments. As she carried on with her work, I realized it was time to leave. I stepped out of the potting shed to walk back home, but not before standing there and gazing at the beauty right there in Maggie’s backyard.
It caught Lisa Monroe’s eye the instant she passed the storefront window of Chambers Department Store. She stopped and gazed. Nestled among suede blazers and leather boots lay a purple pocketbook. Trimmed in black, the small clutch outshone every item in the window. And every item in her closet.
The lustrous purple color reminded her of a sky she had seen once. Another lifetime ago, she lay atop a rolling hillside holding hands with Billy Campo on his dad’s farm. As the lazy summer afternoon moved into early evening, the sky turned. The two teenagers looked up at a brilliant purple sky swirling above their heads. Billy declared right then and there his determination to explore those skies one day. Twenty plus years after, she and Billy Campo worked in the same office complex. Handsome as he ever was, he crossed her path in the lobby once in a while. He was some kind of big shot at a huge electronics company, and he barely acknowledged her.
“May I see the purple pocketbook in the window?” she asked the saleslady. The would-be model looked her up and down and led her to the handbag section. Lisa’s black corduroys and tan cardigan from Sears suddenly made her feel very exposed.
Lisa held the pocketbook in her hand. She caressed the suede purple material. She unsnapped the black onyx fastener and fingered the inside. She breathed in the new purse smell.
“We only have a few in stock.”
Lisa checked the price tag. Two hundred and seventy five dollars! She could pay her car note and eat lunch out two or three times with that money. She snapped the clutch and turned the bag over. Rubbing the purse with her finger, she felt its soft texture soothe her calloused and overworked fingers. Maybe she could splurge. She eyed her Timex watch. She had five minutes to make it back to the office in time to avoid Mr. Brimmer’s glare.
“Did you decide?” asked the saleslady.
If only they had a layaway, Lisa chuckled to herself. “Could you possibly hold one of these for me until Friday?” She ignored the saleswoman’s smirk. “I need to make sure it will match the shoes I’m wearing to a gala, and those should arrive at the end of the week.”
“Well, we don’t typically hold merchandise without a down payment—“
Lisa glanced at her watch. “It’s just that I have to be back at work.”
“I’ll hold it until tomorrow at this time.” She tapped her nametag. “Just ask for me, Carla.”
As Lisa filed the reports Mr. Brimmer had strewn all across her desk, the new and much younger office manager breezed in well past the appointed lunch hour. Lisa dismissed this daily aggravation, as her mind remained fixated on the purple pocketbook. What would Richard say about her spending that kind of money? Maybe he wouldn’t notice. She could put it on her Visa. Or perhaps withdraw the money and pay cash. But after replacing the washing machine and fixing the roof, their savings had dwindled to just over twelve hundred dollars. Then again, would another three hundred really matter?
Before going home that evening, she stopped at the grocery to get fresh ground meat to make her regular Tuesday meatloaf. Passing the deli area, she spotted Swiss cheese on sale. Hmmm…. Why not spice up the recipe and stuff the meatloaf with this good cheese? She got the idea from an article she read in a magazine in the doctors’ office waiting room, something about fifty ways to make meatloaf interesting.
In her kitchen, she molded the meatloaf. As she stuffed pieces of the cheese into it, she heard Richard’s key in the door. He walked in the kitchen, set his lunch pail on the counter, pecked her on the cheek, and grabbed a cold Budweiser from the fridge.
“Meatloaf night,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “I’m starved.” He looked over at the pan. “What are you doing there?”
“Oh, I thought I’d try something different. I’m stuffing it with cheese.”
“Oh. Why change something that works?”
Lisa sighed. “Don’t you ever get bored with the same old meatloaf every Tuesday, week in and week out? Damn, Richard!”
He picked up the newspaper. “Nope.” After he left the kitchen, Lisa felt bad for snapping at him. Richard worked hard at the sugar refinery plant, pulling extra shifts whenever they came available. He never lost his temper and kept the yard in tiptop shape.
When they sat down to eat their dinner, he ate around the cheese part. She refrained from saying anything about it.
“You know that new drill you admired at Sears?” she asked.
“That Craftsman cordless?” he said, mouth full of potatoes. That annoyed her so much it made her skin crawl. He swallowed. “It’s a beauty all right.”
“Why don’t you treat yourself and get it?”
He shook his head. “It’s a hundred and fifty bucks, and I don’t really need it.” He gestured toward the garage. “The one in there works just fine. Besides, the transmission is starting to give on my truck, so I need to put money aside for that.”
Lisa picked at her cheese meatloaf. “But don’t you ever want to do something kind of crazy or impulsive?”
“No. My father spent his life acting on impulses, and we got foreclosed on two homes and evicted from a couple of rentals.”
She could have recited that litany of his syllable by syllable.
Richard coughed into the paper towel and set it on the table.
Lisa gritted her teeth. “Don’t put a paper towel you just spread your germs all over on the clean table, please. Is it too much to ask for some table manners just because we’ve been married for fifteen years?”
Richard scooted back in his chair. “I’m going next door. I told Larry I’d come see his new boat motor.”
Lisa cleared the table. Then she squirted disinfectant on it and wiped it down as if preparing it for surgery. She didn’t need permission to buy a purse. Why did she try to get approval anyway? She worked every day, nine to five, for the last twenty years. Couldn’t she get a freaking luxury purse out of that?
She loaded the dishes into the dishwasher and turned it on. Her bitchiness had run Richard off, but so what. He’d just be sitting in front of the T.V. complaining that nothing was on. As she poured a glass of wine she heard it: A clinking coming from the dishwasher. Then she heard rumbling like thunder before a storm. First the roof, then the washing machine, now the dishwasher. Never two without three. She turned the machine off and drank down the wine.
The next morning she woke up thinking about the purple pocketbook. She ambled out of bed and started her morning routine: Brush her teeth, apply moisturizer and base, gloss lips, and run a brush through her hair. She pulled on a pair of navy slacks and a simple sage sweater that had a few pulls but she didn’t care. She slipped on her loafers and trudged downstairs for her coffee in less than fifteen minutes. She had it down to a science. Richard had already been at work for an hour. She enjoyed this quiet morning time before her commute to the office.
When her lunch hour came, she walked to the ATM on Main Street and withdrew thirty dollars. Armed with a down payment, she pounded the pavement toward Chambers. She stopped to gaze at the purse in the window. It glistened in the sunrays hitting the store window. Carla took her money and rang up a receipt.
“You’ll be in Friday to pay the balance?”
“I sure will,” Lisa claimed with confidence. At least the down payment bought her some time.
She walked down Main Street planning to stop at McDonald’s but found herself entering a fancy bistro. She’d treat herself to a nice lunch. What an elegant place! White linen tablecloths and napkins. Waiters and waitresses dressed up in black slacks and white vests. She and Richard ate at places like this maybe once a year for their anniversary. She sat down near the window and looked over the menu. When the waiter came, she ordered caprice salad and crab bisque.
The soup tasted fantastic. She’d love to make dishes like this for dinner, but Richard would probably prefer Campbell’s. Besides, crab meat cost a small fortune. Way back in their marriage when they learned they couldn’t have children, she tried to take a bit of consolation by thinking they would live a carefree, fun lifestyle, living it up with travel, shopping and restaurants. But life got in the way: Richard’s lay-offs from factory jobs due to cutbacks, her emergency hysterectomy when neither had health insurance, credit card debt.
As she finished her soup, she broke from her reflections and looked at a group of people walking in behind the hostess. Billy Campo walked in with a small group, probably colleagues or clients. They passed right by her table.
“Hello, Billy,” she said as he passed.
He gave her a curt nod.
She paid the check and hurried back to the office. Mr. Brimmer had the gall to walk over to her desk, point his finger at her, and tell her she forgot to take the mail down. The tears rushed right to the surface before she swallowed hard, nodded, and walked down to the mailroom with the bundle. It took every bit of self-control to keep from storming out of there never to return. Now that she was forty, shouldn’t she have earned some kind of right to not have fingers pointed at her especially over menial tasks? Damn!
Before leaving for the day, she checked her Visa balance by phone. She texted Richard to let him know she would be a little late. Then she bee lined straight to Chambers Department Store. She found Carla.
“I came for the purple pocketbook.”
“Sure. Follow me.” Carla smiled and actually treated her like a real customer. When she completed the transaction, Carla boxed the purse up, put it in one of those fancy thick paper bags with handles, walked around the counter and handed Lisa the package.
“It’s been a pleasure serving you, Ms. Monroe. Please come again.”
When she got home, Richard had started dinner. She slipped past the kitchen and tucked the box away on a shelf in their bedroom closet. After changing into old jeans and a sweatshirt, she entered the kitchen.
“Hey, babe.” He walked over and wrapped his arms around her. She hugged him back thinking about the outfit she would wear tomorrow with the purse.
“I’ve got pork chops in the oven.”
“Did you put garlic powder on them?”
Richard frowned. “No. I forgot. You can add it after they’re done.”
“It won’t taste the same,” she said.
“Look, I stopped at the bakery and picked up your favorite.”
Lisa looked in the bag to see the colorful fruit tart tempting her inside. “Oh, no, Richard. I’m trying to lose weight. I can’t resist that.”
“I just thought you needed a nice treat. You’ve been sort of down lately.”
She walked over and gave him a mechanical hug. “Thank you, Richard. I appreciate it.”
They ate dinner in silence. Lisa wished she could be nicer. She wondered if Billy Campo’s wife treated him better.
The next morning, she sprung out of bed and opened her closet door. She pulled down the box with the purse and opened it. Then she added a few essentials from her usual beige handbag to it: wallet, keys, and cell phone. She took extra time in the morning making her face up. She even added eyeliner and mascara. Then she heated up the curling iron to give her hair some waves and bounce. A print wrap dress with flecks of lavender hid in the corner of her closet. When she put it on and held the purse against it, she shouted out, “Yes!” A pair of black high heel pumps—the only pair of high heel shoes she owned—completed the outfit.
When Billy Campo passed her in the building lobby that morning, he actually smiled at her. Then he spoke.
“Lisa, how have you been? Whenever we cross paths, I’m always in a hurry.”
“I’ve been fine, just fine.” A warm glow overcame Lisa. “And you?”
“I never stop. Never stop.” His cell phone buzzed. “I have to get this, but how about meeting me for lunch today? I have an opening.”
“There’s a little bistro down on Main Street. Noon?”
Lisa nodded as he answered his phone. She felt like skipping to the elevator, but she maintained her self-control.
When she arrived at the bistro, her new favorite place with the linen tablecloths and napkins, she found Billy already seated at a corner table toward the back. He ended his phone call when she sat down.
“I took the liberty of ordering us both an apple martini and stuffed mushrooms to start.”
“So we’ve been bumping into each other for a couple of years now, and I don’t even know where you work.”
“Clancy Law. I’m a legal secretary.”
“No. How about you?”
Lisa’s heart jumped. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be. It might be for the best. Now that the kids are grown, we found out we’re a couple of strangers living under the same roof. Besides, the more money I make, the more she wants. When she started with a lake house, I put my foot down.”
“Does she like expensive purses?” Lisa blurted out.
Billy eyed her quizzically. “Expensive purses?” He chuckled.
Lisa blushed. “Just wondering. I kind of developed a thing for them.”
“You’re funny,” he said.
“What happened to your dream to become an astronaut?” she asked.
“I don’t recall dreaming that,” he said.
Lisa recalled it so vividly. “You don’t remember the lush green hilltop and swirling purple sky?”
Billy laughed. “I can’t say that I do. All I ever remember wanting to be was wealthy.” He held his martini up to clink it against hers.
The waiter came to take their lunch order. After he left, Billy said, “I’m staying right here on Main Street at the Marriott Inns & Suites. I’m a minute from the office. They gave me a great deal because my company brings them a lot of business.” He sipped his martini. “Not that I needed it.”
His charm trumped his arrogance.
When their lunch arrived, Lisa started to relax. She found him enthralling, just as she had when they were teenagers together. Billy wanted their meal to continue; he ordered coffee and crème brûlée.
As they sipped their coffee after the meal, Billy grew quiet. He fixated his gaze on Lisa. Or maybe her purse that lay on the table? Then he reached in his shirt pocket and pulled out a key. He dangled it in front of her.
“What’s that for?” she asked.
“That’s a spare key for my room at the Marriott. No pressure, but I can tell you’re not particularly happy in your marriage.” He slid the key right next to her purple pocketbook.
“How can you tell?” she asked.
“Because you just told me.”
Lisa covered her mouth with her hand.
“And only unhappy women give one-word answers when they’re asked about husbands and kids.”
Lisa twirled her hair with one hand and rubbed her pocketbook with the other. This man ignored her for years, and now he’s propositioning her? The purse must contain some kind of magic power, she joked to herself.
“It’s an offer. Room 890.”
Lisa had never cheated on Richard before. On the other hand, she never received an offer like this. Some people claim an affair gives a marriage the jolt it needs. She could recalibrate her life with this man who always fascinated her. Richard was solid and kind and, well, boring. Billy dazzled her—his sophistication, elegance, and impeccable manner.
Then it happened. He sneezed into the white linen napkin. Instead of placing it back on his lap like a gentleman dining with a lady, he placed it right on the table. He didn’t even bother to fold it over. Then he dug into the crème brûlée. With a mouth full of the vanilla dessert, he said, “You don’t have to answer me now. I know it’s something to think about. But don’t think too hard.”
The following Tuesday, Lisa spotted Billy in the office building lobby on her way out for lunch. She couldn’t avoid him forever unless she found another job. For now, though, she preferred not to acknowledge him. Had he expected her to enter his room one night? Probably so. She almost expected to herself. More than likely, he already found another taker and forgot about their lunch just as he had forgotten about the purple sky and astronaut dreams.
She walked past Chambers storefront window. The purple pocketbook had been replaced by a beaded evening bag. Her usual beige handbag hung over her shoulder, worn but comfortable and practical. She walked into McDonald’s, sat down with her salad, and jotted down a few items on her grocery list: ground meat, breadcrumbs, and onions. Richard looked forward to meatloaf every Tuesday, and she found herself craving it too.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, a minor accident has caused a delay in train service. We will keep you updated.”
“Just my luck to get stuck here,” Mara mumbled to herself. She looked around the small station that consisted of a few wooden benches and two vending machines. She set her gigantic paisley suitcase down and took a seat on the edge of the bench near the front glass doorways. After removing her suede jacket and placing it carefully over her luggage, she checked her phone. Nada. Bryson hadn’t even bothered to find out how her journey was going. She pulled a mirror out of her purse and smoothed her blond curls. Her lipstick had faded, but what did she need it for?
She spotted a doughnut shop across the street. Tempting distraction but no way could she succumb to the sugary, fatty treat that would take up residence in her tummy. No telling when her agent might call with that magical audition or opportunity, and she must look her best.
Except for her, a family of four on the far side of the station, and the loud announcer guy behind the smudgy little window, the station was empty. When the young kids started whining and fussing for the candy in the machine, Mara plugged her ear buds into her phone and listened to Taylor Swift. The last thing those little porkers needed was sugar. She shut her eyes and didn’t see the man walk through the doors of the station.
“Anyone sitting here?”
She gasped and opened her eyes.
“I didn’t mean to startle you.” He took a seat on the bench opposite her, his long, slender legs stretching into the aisle.
“It’s okay, really. I just didn’t see you. I’m jumpy when I travel. The train’s late. Seems there was a minor accident.”
He gazed down at her with hazy, bedroom eyes that harkened back to old Hollywood.
“However,” she continued, “I don’t believe in accidents. I think everything is preconceived, even if it’s subconscious.”
“So you think the train operator wanted to wreck, Ms. Freud?”
She laughed. “Mara Mattingly.” She held out her hand.
“Rick Jones. Nice to meet you.” He looked at her and thought whoever invented low-cut red dresses and leather boots deserved a special place in Heaven.
“See, Mr. Jones—“
“Mister? You don’t think I’m that old, do you? Call me Rick.”
“Okay, Rick. See, ever since I left L.A., this journey hasn’t settled right.”
“L.A. as in Los Angeles, City of Angels?”
“Is that home?”
She nodded. “Well, it was home.” She sat up even straighter. “I’m starting a new adventure in my life.”
Rick remembered starting new adventures in his life. Backpacking across the country. Starting a garage band. Marrying the loves of his life. Three times. Starting businesses like the restaurant/bar that failed.
“Mara, when I first saw you, I had to do a double take. I thought you just might be Scarlett Johansson.”
Mara threw her head back and laughed with the delight of a schoolgirl. Her long blond curls swept over her shoulders. “I am an actress, so you’re kind of close. You’re not going to believe this, Rick, but one day I’m in L.A., right. I’m at a Starbucks sipping on a latte. This boy about 12 runs up to me and says, ‘Miss Johansson, can I pleeeaassee have your autograph?’ I couldn’t disappoint the kid now, could I? So I signed his Starbucks napkin, ‘Love, Scarlett.’”
Rick broke into a grin. “He might have sold it on EBay.”
Mara laughed and twirled one of her curls with her forefinger. “You’re funny, Rick. I bet you’re a comedian or something like that.”
He raised his eyebrows. “I bet I work for a liquor distributorship.”
“Oh, cool. You’re a sales executive, that’s my guess.”
Rick considered going along with that, but he long ago tired of bullshit. “Nope. I work in the warehouse.”
Her lip curled a little.
“Hey, the pay’s not bad. I like the shift. You know the best thing about it?”
She rolled her eyes. “The freebies?”
“Well, besides that?”
She didn’t bother to guess again.
“It’s a recession-proof business. People always find money to drink. Now tell me about your acting career. Worked with anyone I might have heard of?”
Mara rubbed her chin. “Leo.”
“Oh, yeah, the Titanic kid. Impressive.”
“Then there was Brad”—
The announcer guy cleared his throat through the microphone. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I just got word that the train’s approximate arrival time is 11:38 p.m. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Rick grinned. “He must think he’s at Carnegie Hall.” He pretended to hold a microphone in his hand. “Ladies and gentlemen.”
Mara laughed. “You know how to relieve my stress.”
“What are you so stressed about?”
Mara stood up and placed her hands on her hips. “Everything! What am I going to do for two more hours?” She pushed her hair back and groaned. “When trips don’t go well, that’s bad karma,” she said. “Maybe I should have stayed in L.A.”
“Where are you headed? Maybe I could drive you.”
“That’s sweet but I’m going to New Orleans, like a million miles away.” Mara checked her phone.
“What’s your new adventure in New Orleans?”
Mara sat down across from him. She stretched her legs out and crossed them at the ankles. When she noticed Rick wipe a bead of sweat from his brow, she crossed them again.
“I was offered a position affiliated with a film studio. You heard of Hollywood South?”
“Plus, it’s home; it’s where I’m from.” Mara pulled out her lipstick and applied it. “I hated to leave L.A. where I was making such headway in my career, but my relationship went kaput at the same time this offer came up. Sometimes life hands your decisions to you in a silver cup.”
“What kind of fool let you go?”
Mara laughed. “Bryson, a software engineer. He and I planned to make this trip in the spring as a vacation. He was going to come to New Orleans with me to meet my parents. We were going to rent a car and just take our time driving. Our plan was to stop in cool places like the Badlands and sleep under the stars.” Her eyes got a faraway look.
“You know what I think?”
She looked at him.
“I think this Bryson guy knew he wouldn’t measure up for your folks, got scared, and backed off.” He stood up and walked over to her bench. He sat down next to her. “Besides, what kind of nutcase passes up the chance to sleep under the stars with you?”
She blushed and batted her eyes. Pretending was her business after all. “No. Bryson considered himself a great catch. See, I wrecked his prized Porsche, and that’s what ultimately ended us.” She hung her head.
Rick grimaced. “You didn’t! But, according to you, that happened on purpose.”
Rick held up his hand. “Whoa. I was joking.”
“It’s no joke. Deep down inside, I knew the relationship hindered me, and I didn’t know how to get out of it. So I drove his prized possession into a lamppost. Of course, when it was happening, I wasn’t consciously doing it.”
He grinned at her.
She placed her hands on her hips. “You don’t believe me? Why are you smiling?”
“I was picturing you driving a Porsche along the coast on a sunny California day.”
Mara twirled her hair and smiled up at him. “What about you? Married?”
Rick shook his head. “Not anymore.”
“Oh, no. What happened?”
She laughed. “I didn’t know it was a multiple choice question.”
“In short, divorce.”
“How many times?”
She held her hand over her mouth. “Forgive me. I’m being too nosy.”
“It’s no state secret.”
“Well, when I get married, I’m determined that it’s forever. I’m prepared to put hard work into it.”
“Keep in mind, Mara, relationships are like refrigerators.”
He nodded. “You open a refrigerator, and you see ice cold beer, left-over pizza, and fresh cold cuts upfront, all so enticing and satisfying. Then you dig deeper, get behind the good stuff, and you find molded gunk that’s not even recognizable anymore.”
Mara thought about it.
“Sound like Bryson?”
She shook her head too quickly and furiously. “No. He never got moldy.”
“I’m just saying the whole contents of a person are eventually revealed, and it’s not all going to be appealing.”
“You’re such a romantic.” She rolled her eyes. “You travel light, Rick.”
“Hmm? Oh, I’m not traveling. I came here to pick someone up.”
“I see.” She got up again and fiddled with her phone.
Mara turned to Rick. “You’re so cool, just sitting there like you don’t have a care in the world. This waiting, wasting time drives me crazy.”
“I used to be like that. Always striving for something. Always aiming for the fences. But you know what I figured out?”
She sat down by him again. “What?”
“It’s all about what you need. If you make too many plans, you’re going to get too many disappointments.”
“But you must want something,” she said.
He gazed at her. “Sure, I do. When I get hungry, I eat. When I’m tired, I sleep. If I want a cigarette, I smoke.”
“You smoke?” she grimaced.
He raised his hand as if swearing on the Bible. “Guilty. Something’s gotta kill you.”
“I can’t see purposefully harming yourself. I also abhor not setting goals. When you woke up this morning, what did you want to accomplish?”
“I wanted to get to McDonald’s before the breakfast time ended.” He broke into a smile.
She laughed. “You’re impossible.”
“And what did you want to accomplish?”
“Aside from safe, trouble-free travels, I wanted to rehearse a part in a script and know it better than anyone in the world who might audition, and I wanted to update my website, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and I planned to take photos during my journey and share them with my friends and fans.”
“I’m exhausted just listening to that. I found out if I have a comfortable bed to sleep in, a little money in the bank, and I know where my next meal is coming from, I’ve got it made.”
Mara frowned and shook her head. “But that’s why you’re working in a warehouse at your age.”
Rick got up.
She held her hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry. That sounded cruel. I just meant that I’m ambitious, and that ambition has paid off.”
“No offense taken. I’m going to smoke a cigarette.”
Rick walked outside on the balmy night and looked at the doughnut shop across the street. He lit his Marlboro and wondered why he’d thought he’d have a chance with a hot young dish like Mara.
A taxi pulled up and the family of four scurried outside with their bags and piled in.
“We found out there’s an ice cream parlor that’s still open,” the dad said. “We’ll be back.”
Rick waved. “Eat a banana split for me.”
He watched the waitress in the doughnut shop wiping tables. At her age. Not that he looked down on that. He peered inside the station and saw his stuck-up little tart fiddling with her phone, probably taking her hundredth selfie of the day. He still ached for her. Maybe he should just go back across the street and finish that cup of coffee and jelly donut he was scarfing down when he saw that vision climb out of the cab and glide into the station.
“Yoo-hoo, Rick?” Mara poked her head out of the door.
He turned around.
“Aren’t you going to…come inside?” Her green eyes flickered along with the neon doughnut shop sign.
“I’m really sorry I hurt your feelings.”
He held out his hands. “No hard feelings, no hurt feelings, Scarlett. I don’t get hurt anymore.”
He turned to leave.
“But I’m lonesome in there since they left.”
He turned back around. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “And the announcer guy creeps me out.”
She looked so vulnerable.
His younger self would have taken the bait, but he ultimately declined to play a part in her little scene. As soon as he tried to touch her, she’d probably start screaming for dramatic effect.
“You think you have everything all figured out, don’t you? And you can just look down on everyone else.”
Tears welled up in her eyes. She shook her head. “No, I don’t. I really don’t.” She walked outside and stood next to him. “I’m a wreck, Rick. All that stuff I said was just my bullshit!”
He just looked at her unfazed.
“Really!” She stomped her foot. “Almost every word of it!”
His nonchalance unnerved her.
“I’m not an actress. I mean, I am—I would love to be. God, I don’t even know what I’m saying. I’ve been in L.A. two years and have never gotten a role. Not even in a commercial! I audition and audition and audition, and nothing comes of it! I worked as a waitress just to pay my share of the bills.”
He just stood there.
“What? You mean you knew it all along?”
He glanced at her. “Let’s just say I’ve been around the block enough to take everything with a grain of salt.”
She glared at him.
“Don’t get mad now. I enjoyed how you looked while you were saying it.”
“Well, that’s something, I suppose. In fact, that sentiment is exactly what convinced me I could be a star. Men have loved looking at me since I turned, oh, fifteen or sixteen.”
Rick put his cigarette out. “What about the job with Hollywood South? More BS?”
“That job? It’s with a catering company that services the movies that film there. My cousin set it up for me. I’ll work in the marketing department. I’ll get to meet the right people in film that way.”
A cab pulled up and the family of four piled out of it. Rick knew it was time to go.
“Mara, I wish you luck. Maybe stop reaching for those stars. Sometimes leaves or tall blades of grass suffice.”
She smiled and rolled her eyes. “You are a trip.”
He rubbed her cheek and turned to leave, his finger smudged with her makeup.
He turned around.
“What about the person you came here to pick up?”
He gave her a look.
“What?” She stopped. Her face broke into a flirty smile. “What can I say?”
He crossed the street.
“I’m flattered,” she called after him.
Rick entered the donut shop to enjoy another jelly donut and cup of coffee.
When she heard the car pull up, Muriel Palmisano struggled up from the battered recliner and pulled herself up with the help of the handy walker. She liked her old ratty chair. Her son offered to buy a new one, but this one seemed to cushion her achy bones just right. Mr. Bellamy liked it too. He curled up right next to her. She leaned over to stroke his head, and the feline purred in response.
The front door opened. “Hey, Ma. You didn’t have to get up. Remember, I got a key.”
“I felt like getting up! Y’all act like I got one foot in the grave already.” She looked at the clock. “Edna’s train arrives in an hour. You’re still gonna have time to pick her up?”
Edna and Muriel’s friendship extended back to grade school. When Edna moved out of state because of her husband’s job transfer, Muriel cried for days. That was 32 years ago. Both widows now, Edna journeyed every year to visit Muriel. They would watch old movies, eat out, and take bus trips to casinos. Muriel doubted her old bones could make it through bus trips anymore, but Edna wouldn’t care. Time flew just sitting, drinking coffee, and visiting.
“The station’s fifteen minutes away. I got plenty time.” Barry pulled a breakfast sandwich out of the fast food bag. “I brought you an egg and sausage biscuit.”
“Thank you, my darlin’. Come give your mama a hug.”
Barry set the sandwich on the end table and embraced his mother.
“You didn’t get one for yourself?” she asked.
“Nah. Samantha cooked breakfast this morning.”
Muriel sat down next to Mr. Bellamy and unwrapped her food. Barry sat on the ottoman opposite her.
“Speaking of Samantha, Ma, we’ve been talking. You know, she’s more than happy for you to come live with us. We’ve got a spare bedroom”—
Muriel waved her hand. “Son, I get along just fine here. Besides, Samantha hates cats.”
Barry chuckled. “She doesn’t hate cats. She’s not nuts about ‘em, granted, but she’d tolerate Bellamy.”
Mr. Bellamy eyed Barry.
“That’s Mr. Bellamy,” corrected Muriel. “Did you find out anything about getting my ramp built outside?”
“Well, I talked to the guy that builds them, but before you put out that kind of money, you may want to consider, you know, making some changes.”
Muriel chomped down on her biscuit. She shook her head. “You and Samantha are good to offer it, but I like my house. I got the Senior Center right down the street. Besides, the both of you are at work all day, so I’d still be alone. And I got this.” She pointed to her Life Alert attached to a chain around her neck.
Barry shook his head. “Okay.” He raised his hands up in resignation. “I gotta leave it to you. Now you’re still okay with selling the Focus, right?”
“Oh, yeah.” She finished her biscuit. “I know I can’t drive anymore. Too much pain, too much medication, and I get woozy.”
“Good. Because the man is coming this morning to take it. Remember we did all the paperwork with the title and all, and he’s coming with the check this morning.”
“I remember,” she said defensively. “You act like I’m going senile or something!”
“No offense, Ma. I’m just making sure we’re on the same page. You and Miss Edna are both pretty amazing. Look at her, traveling all this way by herself on a train at 83.”
When Barry left to pick up the elderly traveler, Muriel paced the floors. All the other old friends had passed away. That’s the price one pays for living. She opened her door and stepped on her front porch. Magnolias filled the overcast spring day with their sweet fragrance. Her legs weakened, so she sat down on the Adirondack chair. The three weather-beaten steps leading to the front porch gave her trouble, that’s for sure. The ramp would fix that.
Barry worried every time she had to put out money. Fred left her secure; his railroad pension covered her expenses. Then she had been rat holing money away from all her part-time jobs. Anthony’s Department Store right up the highway was the last one. She liked it there; it reminded her of a mini Sears or someplace like that. They sold clothes, jewelry, luggage, shoes, linens, and a few other knickknacks. She enjoyed helping customers pick out a gift or choose the best blouse for their figure. When she left, she didn’t know that would be her last job.
Mr. Bellamy appeared at the door meowing. She reached over and opened it for him. An old-timer himself, the cat limped out on three legs. Cancer took his left back leg. Like a little trooper, he recovered and carried on with the three legs like nothing ever happened. Fred was still living when Mr. Bellamy appeared on their porch about ten years ago and adopted them. Sitting there stroking his fur, she realized he would probably be her last pet.
An old brown car pulled up, and a man and woman that looked to be in their thirties got out.
“Hello!” the man practically screamed from the driveway. He and the young woman approached the porch. He wore khaki shorts and a navy blue tee shirt. She wore Capri’s and a tunic top. Funny, the young woman’s style resembled the same kind of clothes Muriel wore in her thirties.
“Hi there! We’ve brought the check for the car.” The young woman’s volume grew louder with each word, and she spoke slowly as if Muriel was mentally challenged. What a pair! Because of her age they think she can’t hear and comprehend? Muriel held on to her walker and pulled herself up.
“Don’t get up, Miss Palmisano,” shouted the young man.
“I’m not a block away, I’m right here. No need to scream,” Muriel said. Then she smiled warmly. “Come inside if you want. I’ve got coffee.”
“Don’t trouble yourself,” the young lady said She had lowered her volume, but she still annunciated each syllable like she was teaching English as a second language to a very slow person. She handed Muriel the cashier’s check for the car.
“Let me get the keys.” Muriel walked to the door and the young man held it open for her. They and Mr. Bellamy followed her inside. She picked two sets of keys up from the side table where Barry had left them.
When she and Fred bought the car, they planned to take road trips to different state and national parks. They toured a couple of them—they saw the hot springs in Arkansas and the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee—then Fred’s stroke abruptly ended their plans. While they appreciated the beauty of the springs and mountains, the best parts of their road trips came from veering off the interstate and venturing down a back road; they liked to eat in diners, and Fred enjoyed checking out old hardware stores and talking to the locals. One time they drove down a road surrounded by fields of bluebells. Fred stopped the car, and they both got out and just gazed for what seemed like an hour. The bluebell trip happened on the way back from their last excursion. Muriel thought that was God giving Fred one last observation of Earth’s beauty.
“Are you okay?” asked the man, shouting again.
“Sure. Just reminiscing about the car,” she answered.
The young couple left, the girl following as her partner drove off in Muriel and Fred’s car.
Muriel walked to the kitchen and put coffee on for Edna. Nothing like a fresh pot to reminisce over. She walked to the bedroom and pulled one of those photo boxes out from the closet floor. This is where she kept pictures from Edna’s last visit. She never got around to putting them in a photo album; her hands ached too often. Samantha told her she would come over and help create a scrapbook for them with all those photos. Edna would love that. She liked crafts and needlework. One of those “idle hands are the work of the devil” gals.
Muriel sat back in her living room recliner next to Mr. Bellamy. She looked at the clock. “It won’t be long, Mr. Bellamy.” She stroked his head. Then she heard the car. Muriel popped up so quickly she surprised herself. Gripping the walker handles, she managed a little skip or two as she rushed to the front door. She’d pay for that later.
Barry opened the door looking like he did when he was seventeen and confessed to her and Fred that he had wrecked the car.
“Where is she?”
“Sit down, Ma,” said Barry.
Muriel walked towards the door to look out.
“She’s not here.” Barry cringed.
She turned to face him. “What happened? The train’s late?”
Barry shook his head.
“She missed it? Then there’ll be another one.” Muriel was the one shouting now.
“Sit down, Ma.”
Muriel listened this time and sat on the edge of her recliner. Barry sat opposite her. He took her hand.
“I got to the station, and Miss Edna never got off the train. Then I get a call. It was Edna’s daughter. I hate to tell you this, Ma, but your friend was found wandering around the station in Memphis at a layover. She apparently had become disoriented, didn’t know where she was.”
“But how can that be?! I talked to her a week ago, and she was the same.”
He spoke gently. “Her daughter said she’s been showing a little decline—forgetting names, repeating herself—but she never dreamed it would get this bad this fast.”
“Where is she now?”
“An official got her to calm down, and Miss Edna let him look in her phone. So he called her daughter. They put her back on a train, and her daughter met her at the next stop. They drove home from there. She apologized for not telling us sooner, but she left in such a rush and didn’t have our numbers in her phone.”
Muriel sat back in the chair. Barry brought her a cup of that fresh coffee.
“Don’t you need to go to work, son?”
“Eh, I’m going to call in, Mom. I don’t want to leave you alone. The office runs without me.”
“I’m okay. It’s tax season; I know how busy you are.”
After Barry left, she sat a while longer. Then she got up and fetched the box of photos. She smiled through tears as she looked through them. At first she told herself Edna postponed the trip and would come in a few weeks. She realized, however, how precious these photos were. She had seen Edna for the last time.
“I want to go to Miss Landry’s farm.”
Margaret looked at her brother quizzically. That was not the answer she expected when she asked Peter how he wished to celebrate his thirty-fifth birthday.
Peter sat at the kitchen table of Margaret’s home, finishing a cup of coffee. He stopped there when his uniform delivery service truck route brought him to her neighborhood. After clearing his throat, he repeated the wish in his soft, precise tone: “I want to go to Miss Landry’s farm.”
Margaret wiped off the red counter trimmed in chrome. It gave the kitchen the look of an old diner. Instead of an expensive kitchen remodel that she and Clyde couldn’t afford, she decorated the whole room with nostalgic Coca-Cola and Hershey signs, red chair cushions, and chrome napkin holders.
“What is that?” she asked.
“You know.” He paused. She continued cleaning. “Seventh grade field trip.” Peter economized on words.
Margaret set the rag down. “Hmm. Do you remember where it is?”
Peter shook his head. “A bus took my class there. It took hours.”
Margaret gazed at Peter’s serene face that masked the other world that lurked beneath his detached demeanor. A different place existed somewhere deep inside her little brother’s mind and soul. While he functioned in this world, present enough to make a living and get along with people, another one played through his essence. A better one? Perhaps. Margaret didn’t know because it was a secret world. When they were children, Peter often traveled to this place.
The sound of a key in the front door distracted her. When Clyde walked in, Margaret tensed up. “Clyde! I didn’t expect you home. Anything wrong?”
“Don’t be so jumpy, Marg. I simply forgot something.”
She dried her hands with a red and white striped dish cloth, even though her hands weren’t wet. “Peter stopped by for coffee.”
Clyde nodded toward his brother-in-law and gave him a terse smile. “I can see, Marg.”
“Do you want a cup?”
Clyde started walking towards the living room. “No time. I’ve got appointments.” Margaret watched him walk towards the bookcase. She slid away from view as he reached inside the enclosed bottom shelf and grabbed a flask of whiskey. Tears welled up in her eyes so she stepped out of the kitchen into the enclosed sunroom.
A row of mourning doves perched atop the neighbor’s wooden fence. Margaret absently watched them. Clyde startled her when he wrapped his arms around her from behind. She turned around and embraced him, and he kissed her.
When he pulled away, he told her, “I love you so much.”
“I love you too.”
“I’ve got some good leads on these new electronic games. The Danny-Dean. Named after the two college geniuses that invented them. They’re a cross between the Merlin and the Simon, and they’ll blow both of them away.”
“Sounds super,” Margaret said.
Clyde sighed. “Nobody says ‘super’ anymore, Marg. It’s 1978 for Chrissake.” He paced around the sunroom. “I’m getting in on the ground floor. Believe you me, if I play my cards right, I’ll be in charge of the whole midwest territory.”
The Danny-Deans were Clyde’s latest “get rich quick” project.
“Ten—count them—ten games in one, and kids can also buy an attachment to make them a walkie-talkie.” His small green eyes shined like tiny emeralds. “Nothing else on the market comes close.”
Margaret feigned a smile. “I hope they take off. I really do.”
Clyde stepped back. “You don’t think they will, do you?” he snapped.
“I didn’t say that, Clyde.”
His voice rose. “I can tell by your voice!”
“Nothing’s a guarantee, that’s all,” she said gently. She reached out and squeezed his hand. He drew her into another tight hug. When Peter walked into the sunroom, Clyde sighed and stepped back. “Well, I better get going. I’m running behind today.”
Peter walked outside in the backyard and picked up a small, skinny twig that lay in the mulch surrounding a birch tree. Margaret watched as he reentered the sunroom, stuck the twig between the partially-opened window and the screen. He dangled it in front of a mosquito hawk trapped inside.
“Come on, boy. There you go,” Peter cooed. When the rescued insect clung to the twig, Peter brought it outside and released it.
After Peter left, Margaret sat down at her typewriter in the corner of the living room that doubled as her office. Before starting on her transcription work, she telephoned St. Christopher Elementary School. She vaguely remembered a Miss Landry, the school librarian, way back when Margaret and her brother attended the school in the early 1950s. The “library” consisted of an old classroom in the back building that Miss Landry turned into a nice little reading nook for the students. Maybe someone at the school could help her find out about this fabled farm that apparently remained stuck in Peter’s mind.
Late that afternoon, Margaret drove her Chevette out to Cottage Gardens, where Peter rented a two-bedroom home. She admired the well-kept lawns reminiscent of English gardens; her brother performed the work for many of them. She walked up to the raised front porch and knocked on the door.
“Hello, Margaret. Come in, please.”
When she entered, she wondered why Peter lived such a solitary life. His home did not reflect that of a bachelor who stayed to himself. No clothes were strewn around the place, no dishes piled in the sink. He kept an inviting, comfortable place.
“I have two things to talk to you about if you have time.” She brimmed with excitement.
Peter turned off the local news. “I sure do. Would you like tea or something?”
He led her to the tidy kitchen and set two cups and saucers on the butcher block table. As he filled the kettle with water, she noticed the obituary section of the newspaper folded right where Peter usually sat. Whose obituary was he concerning himself with? Nobody she knew had died. She tried to read the names upside down from her vantage point. She couldn’t come out and ask Peter. No. If she got too inquisitive or pushy, he retreated.
“Here you go.” Peter poured hot water over the tea bags. “And here’s the cream and sugar.”
Margaret added the condiments to her cup, and Mr. Cuddles, one of Peter’s rescue cats, jumped up on her lap. Margaret stroked the feline’s head as he purred. “First, I found Miss Landry’s farm.”
Peter raised his eyebrows.
Margaret bubbled as she spoke. “I went to the school to see if anyone there might remember or know something about it. Anyway, Miss Landry’s niece now works at the school—she works in the office—a sweet lady. And guess what?”
“It’s now a hobby farm, and the Landry family still owns it.”
“Do they allow visitors?”
Margaret grinned. “They do! They have a blueberry and blackberry patch, and they let people come pick them, fill buckets, and buy them. There are picnic grounds and a walking path. It’s only about 90 miles from here.”
A contented smile formed on Peter’s face.
Margaret stirred her tea. “I’ll bet Dad wished he could have gone on that one. He grew up on a farm.”
Peter looked at her, started to speak, but then checked out into his own little world. A vague fragment of memory flashed in her mind as she recalled their dad getting angry over something to do with this farm. Maybe she just imagined it when she saw Peter retreat.
Margaret spoke up. “The niece….you know, Miss Landry’s niece that gave me the information?”
Peter nodded with his head; his eyes were far away.
“Like I said, she’s a sweet lady. I’d say she’s mid-thirties. Lovely smile.” Margaret shifted her position in the chair. She leaned forward and whispered, “And she’s single.” She blinked her eyes at him.
Peter shook his head. “I don’t know, Margaret.”
“How about just meeting her? I can arrange for you two to have coffee.” She paused. “What harm could it do?”
“I’m not that interested. Sorry.”
She sighed. Her brother feared the complexity of relationships. “I know Mom and Dad argued a lot. And Clyde isn’t exactly the Prince Charming I dreamed of as a girl. But he’s a good man at his core and he loves me, Peter. You don’t want to live out your life alone, do you?”
Peter shrugged. “Let’s just say I’m not a formula person.”
Margaret raised her eyebrows. “Formula person?”
“Graduate college, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids. I don’t think that was ever meant for me. And I’m okay with it.”
Margaret sighed. “But you’re smart, you’re kind, you’re good-looking. I hate the thought of you being alone.”
He stroked the head of another rescued cat that rubbed against his legs. “I’m not alone. And I’m at peace.”
Margaret set Mr. Cuddles on the floor and stood. “I have to get home. I promised Clyde fried fish tonight, and I still have to go to the grocery.”
Peter stood to walk his sister to the door. “Fried fish disagrees with you.”
She paused and glanced at the newspaper on the way out. The name “Timothy O’Toole” struck her. She committed it to memory “Me? I’ll just heat up a can of soup. Would you like to come over for dinner?”
Peter shook his head. “No thank you.”
Margaret always dreaded leaving him alone despite the fact that he seemed to crave solitude. Before she finally got married to Clyde a couple of years ago, she dreaded evenings that turned into long nights alone; she joined book clubs, yoga classes, disco lessons, anything that got her out amongst people. “I’ll pick you up Sunday for a day at the farm then?”
Peter simply nodded.
When Margaret drove up to Peter’s cottage on Sunday, she stayed in the green Chevette for a few moments collecting her thoughts. She looked in the rearview mirror and touched up her face. Why did she always let Clyde drive her to tears? When would she learn to not let his fits upset her? He was a good man, and she smiled when she thought about their make-up sessions.
As she opened the car door, she saw Peter ambling down the steps in his khaki slacks and navy button-down shirt. Hardly gear for a farm, dear Peter! Her brother always dressed so neatly. In school, he was the kid that the teachers held up as an example of tidiness. She thought about this farm and the way Peter acted like she should remember it. His seventh grade field trip. She would have been a junior in high school.
Peter got in the car. “I can’t thank you enough for this, Margaret.”
“Anything for my little brother’s birthday,” she smiled.
They got on the Interstate and headed south to the farm. Peter sat quietly gazing at the stretches of farmland. She switched on the radio and hummed along to Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away.”
When the song ended and a commercial advertising McDonald’s new sundae filled the airways, Peter spoke. “What do you think about Clyde’s Danny-Dean?”
It never failed to surprise her. For all of her brother’s apparent detachment, he absorbed everything around him.
“I didn’t know you overheard us,” she said.
“Clyde’s loud,” he explained.
“I see. Well, I think it could be good. It’s just that he gets his hopes up so high, and then when things don’t pan out…” Her mind wandered to the other schemes and disappointments. Life would not be easy if the Danny-Dean failed. She would not even let her mind go there.
“So what was it about this seventh grade field trip that makes you want to revisit? You must have had a super great time!”
Peter didn’t answer right away. The bright October day betrayed the chilly autumn wind that blew the wheat in the endless fields they passed. Was Peter simply watching the crops blow in the wind? Or did he not even really see the farmland?
Margaret continued. “My favorite field trip was fifth grade. Miss Sanders took the whole class to a dairy farm, and we learned how to make cheese.”
“It’s about making peace.”
“Making peace?” Margaret slowed the car down. “Making peace with who? With what?” Peter slouched in his seat and she scolded herself for peppering him with questions, but she couldn’t contain her curiosity. What was he talking about?
After driving a few more miles, she cleared her throat. “Did something happen on that field trip that I don’t know about?”
They passed a few more fields before he spoke. “I don’t think it’s necessary for you to know about it.”
Margaret’s heart beat faster. So something did happen, but if he wanted to revisit the place as a birthday present, it must have been something good. That’s it. He’s reliving a good memory. Making peace could be his way of seeking that boyhood happiness.
Margaret parked in a shelled lot near the entrance to the farm. When they got out, the fresh, brisk air put a smile on Margaret’s face. Peter gazed towards the northern end of the land. They walked along a path lined by wildflowers towards a cluster of buildings: an office, a barn, and a gift shop. A young lady dressed in blue jeans, and a checkered shirt tied at her tiny waist greeted them when they entered the office. Margaret paid the admission and the girl handed them each a large bucket for berry picking. She sparkled as she told them about the farm. “There’s a walking trail that leads back to the woods.” She pointed out of the window to another view of the farm. “We keep chickens and there’s a duck pond out that way. And there’s a precious little picnic area right past the berry patch. If you didn’t bring lunch, we sell scrumptious pre-made sandwiches in our little general store right next to this building.”
“Clyde just loves blackberry cobbler,” Margaret said as they walked toward the berry patches. “He devours it. When I make one for him, I’ll make one for you too, of course.” They passed in front of the general store. “I want to stop here on the way back. I’ll bet they have good homemade jams and preserves.”
She turned to Peter for a response, but he had apparently checked out. When they got to the blackberry patch, she set her pail down. Peter gazed toward the far end of the farm. “Would you mind picking some for me too? I’d like to take a walk.”
He handed her the bucket and trekked along the grassy path between the rows of berry bushes. Instead of picking berries, Margaret watched him. Where was he going? She barely slept the night before trying to figure out how Timothy O’Toole tied in with this farm and Peter. She had gone to the library to look up his obituary on microfiche. Not a whole lot of information was revealed. Timothy O’Toole, age 35, died of natural causes, and it listed his parents and siblings. Like Peter, he apparently had no wife or kids.
Peter disappeared from Margaret’s line of vision. She got busy with her picking. A young couple with a little boy and girl joined her in the berry patches. The kids squealed with delight as they chased each other through the bushes. After filling both buckets, she looked at her watch and realized a whole hour had passed. She lugged the buckets down the path in the direction of Peter. A breeze rustled through the bushes and trees, and she saw a wild rabbit spring across the path in front of her. The peaceful setting belied the anxiety building up inside of her.
When the path ended, she looked around. Where had he gone? She entered the woods and called Peter’s name. She spotted the dilapidated top and faded gray stones of a well. Peter sat on the ground, knees up to his chest, staring into the thicket.
“Peter, honey, are you okay?”
He looked up at his sister. “I’m fine, Margaret. I just had to come back to this spot.”
She placed the buckets down and sat crossed-legged on the ground next to him.
“Margaret, I’m not sure you’re ready to hear this, but when I was here in seventh grade, it was the last time I felt free.” He sighed. “It was fleeting. Very fleeting.”
Margaret waited for him to continue.
“It didn’t last long. His sister caught us.”
“Caught who?” Margaret asked. “You and who?”
“Caught you doing what, Peter? I don’t understand.”
Peter paused for what seemed like an awfully long time. “I think you do understand, Margaret. If you let yourself face things, it will be apparent.”
Margaret’s face flushed. “Come on now, Peter. You’re talking about two twelve-year-olds. Whatever you were doing couldn’t have meant anything.”
“But it did, Margaret. It felt right. It felt good. It was an epiphany. The two of us came back here to look at the well, and before either of us knew it, we were embracing each other, kissing, and—”
Margaret winced. “Oh, Peter, stop.”
Tears filled Peter’s eyes. “Don’t you see, Margaret? I’ve stopped it all my life. Buried it. When Timmy’s parents found out, he never came back to our school. They sent him to a psychiatric hospital.” His voice suppressed the outrage that wanted to burst out of him.
Margaret realized that’s why Timothy’s name was familiar. In their town, rumors spread about that young O’Toole boy going crazy. She had no idea he ever had anything to do with Peter. Timothy must have forced himself on Peter, and Peter coped by imagining it to be some wonderful thing. “But, Peter, just because that boy touched you and ended up in a bad way doesn’t mean you have to”—
Peter stood and started circling the well. “You’re my sister and I love you, Margaret, but you need to take those blinders off.”
Margaret looked up at him. She used her hand as a shield to block the sun.
“Timmy suffered greatly because of what happened here.”
Margaret sighed. “His parents were only trying to cure him, I’m sure.”
Peter leaned against the well. He dragged his fingers through his hair and moaned.
“How did he die anyway?”
Peter looked down into her eyes. “I lost touch with him. I couldn’t ask anyone where he was or how to contact him. I would have been cursed. But whether the official cause of death was listed as heart failure, drug overdose, car accident, or anything else, I know Timmy O’Toole suffocated to death.”
Margaret stood and leaned against the well. “But people aren’t supposed to be that way, Peter,” she whispered. “It’s not Christian. It’s not natural.”
“I hope you can still accept me because I’m not going to live the next thirty-five years of my life slowly smothering to death.”
Tears streamed down Margaret’s cheeks.
He spoke deliberately and with a certain command. “I put in for a transfer with my job. They have openings in big cities like Philadelphia, New Orleans, and San Francisco. I’m going to move to a place that is big and busy and diverse as soon as I can.”
Peter talked a little more about his plans. Despite her shock over his confession, she couldn’t help but find her heart warming a bit because he sounded enthused and engaged. His admission would take some getting used to, but she loved her little brother no matter what. God, she could never, ever tell Clyde. Well, he didn’t have to know. She’d just tell him Peter got a promotion so he moved. Why go into all of the private details?
Peter stood and placed his hand on Margaret’s shoulder. She pulled him closer and they hugged. They walked back to the car, buckets in hand, in silence. On the long car ride home, they didn’t speak for the first part of their journey.
As dusk started casting shade over the wheat fields, Margaret started thinking out loud. “God, I hope traffic’s light. I promised Clyde fried chicken for dinner tonight since I would be gone all day.”
Peter raised an eyebrow.
“Well, he likes to hang out with me on Sunday while I cook us a really nice dinner. He knew this was important to me, though. He can be really considerate like that. What I might do is stop at KFC. They should still be open.”
Peter sighed. “Be careful not to fall in a trap so deep you can’t get out, Margaret.”
Trap? Poor Peter didn’t know what he was talking about. She liked her normal, traditional life. It’s the life she dreamed of as a little girl. She was happy. Yes, she had made a happy home. That’s what she kept telling herself.
I hope you enjoyed my short story collection. Following are sample chapters from my two novels. The first is from my Beatles-inspired coming-of-age, Rain Clouds and Waterfalls. After that is chapter one from my mystery/women’s fiction Beneath the Shady Tree. Piper Templeton
1. NOWHERE MAN
As I walked home from school that day in the Spring of 1976, I knew things had changed. Butterflies didn’t flutter in my stomach; I wished. More like wasps stinging at me from the inside out. I tried to push Jake and Dad’s argument away from the night before. When mean words like “stupid” and “lazy” popped up in my head during Math and P.E. like jacks in the box I tried to shove them back in the box. Then my two former best friends, Michelle and Jo Lynn, trailed me closely enough so I would hear their whispers and giggles. “Mind your own business!” they would shout when I took their bait and turned around. How do eleven-year-olds get that mean?
A few weeks ago, the three of us stayed up all night, laughing in the dark, enjoying sleep-overs at Jo Lynn’s house. After school, we often zoomed over to Michelle’s to allegedly do homework but spent more time listening to records, poring through Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine and playing Clue, Sorry! or Scrabble. Then, boom. They turned on me. I had pretended not to notice those faces they made to one another when I would say something to them that used to make them giggle and scream with joy. To make matters worse, I had to cobble together my Bicentennial project for Sister Margaret’s sixth grade social studies class all by myself. I can’t draw. I can’t build. I can research and write. That was going to be my part of the trio. The Founding Fathers would cut me some slack, I think. I don’t know if Sister Margaret would.
I turned on Dakota Lane and passed Sue’s house as a yellow Torino packed with teenagers peeled out of her driveway. She rolled down the window in the back seat and shouted, “Hey, Dummy,” with a goofy grin on her face. I hollered back, “Hey, nut!”
Despite three years age difference, Sue was my best neighborhood friend. We still liked to hang together. One look at each other, and we could break out laughing, just knowing what crazy thoughts crossed the other’s mind. It’s funny how friends can be categorized: neighbor friends, school friends, the friends by my grandma’s house. None ever met. I wore different faces for all of them.
I turned the corner to my painted green house set back on a large lot where sycamore trees littered the yard with their brown, crunchy leaves. Weeds filled the small garden under the picture window. The brown Ford Fairmont with the flat tire sat on the street in front of the lawn.
When I walked in, my stomach sunk. And I just knew it. Jake was gone. No soothing sounds of “Walls and Bridges” flowed from the turntable in his room. That and the awful argument he had with dad the night before. The kind that pierced my stomach and stalked me into sleepless nights. It’s called extreme empathy. It’s a curse. I had tried to push it back to that far corner of my mind where I could fold it into pieces so tight like paper and never unfold it again. But that didn’t work this time.
I peeked in my brother’s room anyway. Then I entered. His favorite clothes were gone — the Saints t-shirt, blue jeans, the brand new green Army jacket. His most beloved books by Hemingway and Faulkner were gone. I walked to my room and flopped myself down on the bed. When my eyes landed on the dresser, I saw his collection of Beatles and solo Beatles albums leaning against the mirror. I got up. The note read:
I know you’ll love having these. I had to go. It was time. Love, Jake”
Jake had lost his latest job at Amicio’s Drug Store about a week ago. It’s not that he couldn’t do the work; he had called in sick, and the manager got mad. Retail people are hard about that kind of thing. Dad believed the manager. Dad was clueless. Not all illnesses show physical symptoms.
I pulled out “Rubber Soul” and listened. My older brother had introduced me to the Beatles. Jake could imitate Lennon’s walk and speaking voice like tomorrow never knew. If the school or a local theater had ever put on a Beatles play, Jake could have played Lennon. To perfection. But Dad probably would have discouraged him from even trying out. I closed my eyes and listened.
The door opened, interrupting “Nowhere Man.” My mom poked her head in. She rubbed her face. That’s what she did when her nerves got to her. She felt for any bump on her skin, trying to rub any unpleasantness away.
“You know Jake’s gone to find a job and get his own place.”
I just nodded.
“Your daddy thought that was best.” I didn’t say anything. “It is,” she insisted, despite the fact that I’d offered no resistance.
“When is he coming back? Where did he go?”
“Don’t worry about that. He’ll be in touch.”
I looked at the record player, hoping the music machine would swallow me up in that nowhere land they sang of.
“Spaghetti and meatballs for supper!” my mom said, thinking my favorite dish would distract me from Jake.
I just nodded. When she left, I felt bad for not saying more. Just like I felt bad for not saying more several years ago, when I found out the real reason mom, Jake and I visited Clearview Mall every Wednesday afternoon after school.
My mom’s blue Impala would drop Jake off at the back section of the mall, and then she and I would explore the shopping center: We’d browse through Sears, maybe buy socks, stockings and such. On a really lucky day, she would buy candy from Sears’ counter. I liked sampling the dips and cheese at the Swiss Colony store next to Sears. A visit to Gramophone Records was a must for me. I would go look at the Beatles albums even though we owned all of them. I might buy a Top Ten 45 if I had money with me. An ice cream cone from K&B Drugstore’s soda fountain topped off the mall visit. Mom would give me a quarter for the jukebox, and we would sit at the counter or a booth and enjoy the frozen treat. By then, it was time to go pick up Jake and head home.
Then one day we pulled up to the usual place and waited for Jake. The sun had slipped behind the gray clouds that dropped a few fat drops of rain, one at a time.
“He better get here,” my mom sighed. “I have to get supper together.”
A boy about Jake’s age came out to the car. “Miss Clemens? I’m K-K-Keith.” He rubbed his curly hair even though it was not in the way. “J-J-Jake’s going t-to be a l-little late. Dr. A-Avery wanted t-to t-talk to him alone after – after our g-group s-session.”
My mom glanced at me and then turned to Keith and smiled at him. “Thank you for letting me know, Keith.”
When Keith left, my mom and I just sat there in the car. I waited for her to say something. All this time, I had thought Jake was at the other part of the mall, hanging out by the pinball machines and that. My mom turned on the engine and switched the radio on. Boring news.
I pried my mouth open. “I didn’t know—”
“Shh. Let me hear the news.”
Before the broadcaster finished, Jake walked out. My mom turned the radio off. “Oh, good. Here’s Jake.”
We rode home, my mom making idle chatter about work and dad and the meatloaf she planned to put in the oven. Jake mock-raced me to the front door because he knew I liked that. Before I stepped inside, my mom whispered, “Ellen, don’t say anything about this to anyone – hear?”
While I usually ate with Jake at the kitchen table as my parents did crossword puzzles and finished their highballs in the living room, tonight I sat alone, forcing a meatball into my jumpy digestive system. The phone hung stubbornly on the kitchen wall, refusing to ring. I shoved the food into my napkin and threw it in the garbage can.
When I walked into the living room and sat on the sofa, my mom and dad’s faces grew more intent as they immersed themselves in their puzzles.
I went back to my room and listened to more “Rubber Soul.” My parents had their nowhere land, and I had mine. I wondered where Jake’s was.
Payton Montomery awoke shaking and crying. The loud, thundering roar of the nearby train whistled through her shotgun rental home, rattling the windows. She peered at the alarm clock on the bedside table. Almost six. No point trying to fall back asleep. She sat up and slid her bare legs over the side of the bed. She heard Curt’s heavy work boots trudge from the kitchen to the bedroom.
The instant he entered the room, dread overcame her. Even though they had had sex the night before, she covered her nude body with the patchwork quilt when he stood in front of her. He towered in front of her, his face pinched and angry.
“Look, Payton, it’s just not working out. I mean, damn, how’s a guy supposed to get any rest with you calling out half the damn night?”
“I don’t even remember,” she sighed.
“Well, I remember. It’s off and on the whole night.”
She spotted his suitcase straight ahead in the doorway of the kitchen.
“You don’t have to give up and leave! Maybe you could sleep in the spare bedroom.”
He snickered. “What’s the point of living with you if we can’t even sleep together?”
“We could still”—
“Besides, I would still hear you. Hell, you’re lucky the neighbors don’t complain.”
She had wanted to keep this private, but she blurted out: “I’ve made an appointment with that doctor. He may be able to help me get to the bottom of these nightmares.”
“What Goddamn doctor?”
“Avery. He’s a, you know, psychiatrist.”
“A shrink. Jesus. Just what the guys on the crew have to hear.”
Payton sighed. “They wouldn’t have to know. Look—” she got distracted when Oscar, her pug, scampered into the bedroom with his sassy little bark.
“Shut up, dog!” screamed Curt. He raised his hand and stooped down toward Oscar.
“You leave him alone!” Payton dashed up and pushed Curt’s hand away. He slapped her back down on the bed. “Damn you!” she screamed. She leaned over and scooped her little canine companion up onto the bed with her. He proceeded to have a fight with the pillow.
“I’m outta here, babe. This ain’t what I bargained for.”
Payton turned her attention to Oscar. As she heard the front door slam, she stroked his velvety fawn head. “I really know how to pick ‘em, Oscar. It’s just you and me, like always.”
Swallowing hard, she blocked any exit for the tears. Cry for what? Him? Hmph! She looked around her renovated shotgun rental. When Mr. Brooks had promoted her to manager of Brooks’ Books’ downtown New Orleans location, she rented the small house uptown so she could be near Audubon Park and all the trendy restaurants and bars. The bookstore was a quick trip downtown on Baronne Street in the Central Business District. It didn’t take long after she met Curt to invite him to live with her. She dreaded being alone. How many mistakes did she have to make in the man department before she got it right?
An early December wind chilled her bones as she walked down the steps to her red Firebird. The heel on her leather boot got stuck in a crack in the sidewalk, almost toppling her down on the pavement. The day’s got to get better, she thought to herself.
“Did you get hit by a truck or a bus?” Her assistant, Lonnie, asked, munching on a Tastee donut.
“How about a freight train named Curt?” Payton removed her suede coat and pulled a mirror from her purse. Lonnie was right. Usually she pulled herself together better than this. She fixed her hair and started applying powder to her face. “I should know better! I’m almost thirty! All the signs were there. He was only attentive when he wanted sex. He took no interest in my life. I had to beg him to go with me to visit Dad or Terrance. Oscar didn’t like him.”
Lonnie pulled another donut from the box and handed it to Payton.
“No wonder you’re a head turner.” She took a bite. “I always said, if your dog doesn’t like somebody, then they’re no good. Dogs know.”
A knock on the glass startled them. “Uh oh. A cop,” said Lonnie.
When Payton let him in, the young officer walked in carrying flyers. “Excuse me for coming by before you’re even open,” he began.
“No problem, Officer,” said Lonnie, offering him a donut.
He handed them a few flyers showing a little girl’s picture. Payton’s heart sank. “This little girl, Abigail Guidry, went missing day before yesterday. She was last seen at the bank building right down the street. Her mother works for a law office there. Would you mind hanging this up and handing them to people that come in your shop?”
“Sure,” said Payton. “I wonder if it’s Terrence’s law firm. He may know something.”
“N.O.P.D. is interviewing everyone that works in that building, ma’am. Well, thank you kindly.”
“No problem, Officer,” said Lonnie. “Here, take your donut.”
He picked a powdered jelly and Payton saw him out.
When she returned, Lonnie said, “Look, I pulled out all the Scrooge books we had in stock and figure I can make a display right there at that table by the window.”
Payton stared at the flyer.
“Yoo-hoo. Earth to Payton.” Lonnie waved her hand in front of Payton.
“You look like you saw a ghost.”
“It’s just that something awful had to happen to this little girl. And she looks about six.”
“Sad. But maybe it’s a custody dispute thing and the dad has her. Who knows? Sometimes these things don’t have a bad ending.”
Payton set the flyer down. “Thanks for pulling those books. I meant to get to that a week ago.”
Lonnie looked at her. “You’ve been a mess. You need some refined sugar or something.”
Payton grinned in spite of herself. “You’re a trip and a half.”
“Besides, Mr. B will have a cow if he comes in here and sees we don’t have a display up.”
Payton looked around the store. Old newspapers lay on tables in the reading area. Several books remained on carts instead of on their shelf. The new True Crime section remained only partially completed. The magazine section needed an overhaul. Her store was in disarray.
“Mr. B will have a cow if he sees how I’m managing this store,” Payton answered, half-jokingly.
Just before lunchtime, Terrance Sterling breezed through the shop doors. Resplendent in his tailored gray suit and crisp white collared shirt, he stopped in front of the newly laid-out book display.
“There’s the man,” called Lonnie.
“Why, hello, darlin’.” He walked over and Lonnie reached up to give him a hug.
“Payton should be back any time now.”
“Where did that girl go off to?” he asked.
“A doctor’s appointment.”
“Is she sick?”
“Nah. I think it was just a checkup of some kind. Let me get you a cup of coffee or something.”
“How kind of you.”
Lonnie brought the cup of fresh brew, and Terrance took it as he looked over the Scrooge display. “You did some stellar work here.”
Lonnie beamed. “Thanks.”
“I would just make one tiny change, and you can take it to the bank or you can tell me to stuff it.”
“No. Tell me. I want your advice.”
“I’d put the illustrated hard back right in the center since it’s eye-catching.”
Lonnie moved the book. She stepped back to take a look. “Perfect. Thank you.”
Payton entered carrying a brown paper bag.
“There’s my sweetheart,” Terrance said. He walked up and embraced her in a bear hug.
“I didn’t know you were coming. I got lunch for me and Lonnie.” She walked to a back table and pulled out two po-boys. “Here, take half my shrimp.” She handed Lonnie her roast beef.
“You know I don’t want to take anything from you.”
“You can’t take it if I’m giving it to you.” She grinned at him.
The three sat at a back table, keeping an eye on the front. Payton handed Terrance the flyer of Abigail Guidry.
Terrance cast his eyes away from it. He held his hand to his heart.
“Oh, no. Is it your law office the mother works at?” Payton asked.
Terrance nodded. He swallowed hard before he could speak. “Sure is. The whole place is just sick about it.”
Payton read over the flyer again and looked at the picture of the little girl with the gap in her teeth, wavy dark hair, and big, innocent brown eyes that seemed to be staring right at her.
Payton noticed Lonnie stealing glances at Terrance. Too bad he was married to that dour Darlene. She wouldn’t mind playing matchmaker with those two.
“I’m picking up the cake for Dad’s birthday tonight,” Payton told Terrance. “He loves German chocolate, so I ordered it from Haydel’s.”
“You think of everything. Darlene and I will get there about 7:30. You want us to pick you up?”
“That’s okay. It’s out of your way.”
Terrance gulped down the last bite of his sandwich and wiped his mouth. He stood up. “I thank you ladies for the coffee—” he winked at Lonnie—“and the sandwich.”
“Any time,” said Lonnie.
As he was leaving, Payton gasped when she saw Mr. B’s head popping through the door. She and Lonnie hurriedly cleared the table of their lunch remnants as the store owner whisked from aisle to display, his head disappearing behind any pile of books over five and a half feet. Then his bespectacled head bobbed up again, as he marked notes on his old-time clipboard.
He walked over to them with that grin plastered to his face. Formal as always, he shook their hands.
“Payton, can I have a word with you?”
She followed him to the reading area as Lonnie tended to a couple of customers. They sat at a table near the window.
“Payton.” He cleared his throat. “When I promoted you to manage this store six months ago, I did it because of the energy and drive you put into my Baton Rouge location.”
Payton nodded, praying he wasn’t planning to give her the axe.
“I know you’ve got the smarts for this job.”
Payton bit her upper lift to hide her amusement at his term “smarts.” She’d have to remember to tell Lonnie that one.
Mr. B pulled papers out from his beat-up brown briefcase. “Sales in the second quarter tanked in comparison to last year.”
“I’ve got a couple of ideas I wanted to talk to you about to bring in new business.”
“And I want to hear them, but you also need to keep the store in tip-top shape.” He held up a two-day old New York Times lying on the table. “Old papers need to be discarded.” He gestured to a cart near the magazines. “Books need to be shelved.”
“I understand, Mr. B. Don’t lose faith in me yet.” How could she tell him that ever since she moved back to New Orleans, those nightmares started, and they seemed to discombobulate her days too? But he didn’t want excuses, that’s for sure.
“I haven’t lost faith in you, Payton.”
“Good. I’m going to update everything. I planned to do it this morning, but I had a doctor’s appointment. Then we wanted to get the Scrooge display up.”
“Tell me about these ideas you have.”
“I thought we’d start a book club. Not just a regular book club, but a lunchtime one. Workers could come, and we could order in lunch, have it here ready for them.”
Mr. B nodded. “I like it. I like it.”
“Also, I thought we’d try to bring in someone to give creative writing lessons one night a week.”
“That’s a possibility. Get me the figures, and I’ll do a cost analysis on it.”
“The teacher would get half the fees, and we would get the other half. We could also sell any books the instructor recommends.”
“That’s the kind of creative spark I recognized in you in Baton Rouge.”
“And when we have book signings with authors, we can ask them to be a guest at the classes. They could give a little speech; do a little Q & A with the students.”
Mr. B nodded his approval. “Sounds good. Like I said, let me know when you’ve got all the preliminary work done.” He stood up, looking at his watch. “I’ll be back in a couple of weeks. Keep me posted in the meantime.”
When her boss left, Payton set about organizing the magazines. Even though her job depended on it, she found concentrating on the task impossible. On every magazine cover she looked at, she kept seeing the innocent, pleading eyes of little Abigail Guidry.
Thank you for reading The Potting Shed and Other Stories. If you enjoyed it and have the time, a short review on Amazon, Goodreads and/or a favorite book site of yours would be most appreciated. Word of mouth is an author’s best friend.
(Turn the page for more from author)
Piper Templeton was born in a New Orleans subdivision in 1964. A Liberal Arts graduate from the University of New Orleans, she loves writing fiction that mines beneath the surface of seemingly ordinary people’s lives. Her first book, Rain Clouds and Waterfalls, was published on Kindle and Create Space in May 2014. She followed it up in 2016 with a women’s fiction/mystery set in New Orleans, Beneath the Shady Tree.
Combining her love of children and books, Piper volunteers for a reading program for second graders. She continues to reside in the New Orleans area with her three feathered friends.
You can visit Piper’s webpage and sign up for her mailing list here:
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Told with subtle drama, humor, and a hint of irony, this collection of short stories scrapes beneath the surface of facades and explores human nature, moral dilemmas, and people trying to connect with one another. The collection includes a father trying to reconnect with his son through John Lennon; a young woman returning to her hometown to face an incident that's plagued her conscience since she left; a dissatisfied woman who imagines an eye-catching bag in a storefront window will fill her void; a chance meeting between two strangers at a train station; an elderly woman awaiting a friend's visit as she reflects on a life that's winding down; and an introverted man's desire to visit a farm from childhood.