“I absolutely will NOT go out on New Year’s Eve,” Calla said, stirring a big pot of black-eyed peas. “We’ve got everything we need right here.”
“Look, I love eating the peas for good luck on New Year’s Day, but couldn’t we just go out for dinner on New Year’s Eve?” Jeff wheedled. “We wouldn’t have to go to a big party or anything. But couldn’t we just do a little something special to mark the new year?”
Jeff loved people. A happy extrovert, he could spend convivial hours telling stories and laughing with whoever happened to be around. It was one of the few areas in which he and Calla differed. Calla’s career was a demanding one, and her idea of heaven was a quiet evening at home. She sighed. Jeff could be such a pain sometimes.
But he could make puppy-dog eyes that got to her every time. Her shoulders relaxed as she smiled at him. “Oh, you’re good! Okay, okay. Just dinner, though, and not some big glitzy restaurant, either.”
He promised. They’d been married eight years, and he’d bumped up against her boundaries often enough to respect them. He made reservations at a little neighborhood bistro where they went often. It wouldn’t be very lively, but he intended to talk her into wearing that little black dress he liked. He’d gotten her a necklace for Christmas that would be perfect with it. Jeff loved to see his wife all decked out instead of in her usual surgical scrubs.
They went early. Calla didn’t want to be on the streets once the heavy drinking started. As an Emergency Department physician, she’d seen enough road carnage to last her a lifetime.
The little restaurant was brave with candles and sparkly garlands draped from every available surface. There were few diners at such an early hour. Their waitress, whom they knew by name, waddled to the table with the menus.
“Wow, Conchita, look at you!” Calla said, casting a professional eye over Conchita’s enormous baby bump. “When’s the big day?”
“I’m not exactly sure,” Conchita said, pressing a hand to her back. “I guess I’ll know when it’s time, just like with the other four.”
The food she eventually brought them was delicious. They ate in silent appreciation, their conversation momentarily stilled. So they plainly heard the commotion in the kitchen.
A busboy ran to the front of house where the manager stood near the door. Both Calla and Jeff could speak Spanish, but they couldn’t comprehend it at the speed with which it was pouring forth. The manager grabbed her phone and they heard she was calling 911. The busboy was hopping from one foot to the other.
“Ahora! No hay tiempo! Is now! Is now!”
Calla and Jeff exchanged a look. They stood and walked through the swinging doors into the kitchen. There was Conchita with her forehead pressed to the wall, back arched with the convulsive pain of imminent birth. Calla took her hand, ignoring the torrent of panicky Spanish around them.
“Estarás bien. You will be all right,” she said steadily. “Babies that come so fast are always healthy. We’re going to get you up on the prep table where the light is better. Your baby is almost here.”
Calla signaled to the cook to clear the prep surface, which he did with a sweep of his arm. The busboy darted forward with a cloth and a spray bottle of disinfectant. Supported on both sides, Conchita gingerly transferred herself to the stainless steel table. Jeff stood behind her and supported her back while Calla caught the baby and wrapped him in a clean dishtowel. In a remarkably short time, the wail of a healthy newborn transfixed everyone within earshot, echoed by the siren of an approaching ambulance.
“You have to admit that was a unique New Year’s Eve celebration,” Jeff said as Calla stripped off her ruined black dress at home.
“We did well, didn’t we?” Calla’s voice was high with leftover adrenalin. “That was real teamwork.”
“Did you see the baby looking at you when you wrapped him? His eyes were full of…something so mysterious; I don’t know how to describe it.”
“I felt as though he saw directly into my soul. I guess that clarity will fade as he gets used to being in the world. I’ll never forget it, though.”
“So, do you suppose we’ll ever…?”
“I can’t think why we’ve waited so long.”
“I don’t want to leave Bella with a sitter, not when she’s still so tiny. I know you love to celebrate, though,” Calla said the following New Year’s Eve.
There’d been no time to cook a big pot of black-eyed peas, but it didn’t matter. She’d never felt luckier as she sat in the rocking chair with their three-month-old daughter clasped in her arms, a sleep-deprived, radiant Madonna. Jeff smiled from across the room.
“You must have me mixed up with somebody else,” he said. “I absolutely will NOT go out on New Year’s Eve. I’ve got everything I need right here.”
They were newlyweds and money was tight. With Christmas coming they didn’t know how they’d be able to buy each other presents. She said, “Maybe we should write each other love letters for Christmas.”
“Love letters? That’s corny. We say I love you every day.”
“Yes, but why? Why do we love each other? Wouldn’t that be the best gift of all, to know exactly why?”
“Geez! That’s a girl thing. I wouldn’t know how to write the first word.”
“Okay, it was just a thought.”
But it was a thought that wouldn’t go away. He couldn’t sleep that night. Lying awake, he mentally listed all the things he loved about her. Maybe if he just put them down on paper…
When Christmas morning came, their empty stockings still hung from the mantle just as they’d left them on Christmas Eve. She made pancakes and sausage. He built a fire with logs he’d split himself. Together, they sat watching the flames as they had their second cups. He felt too shy to give her his letter. She didn’t seem to have one for him. Well, it was just a thought, as she’d said. She’d probably reconsidered. Maybe she was afraid she’d be disappointed in anything he’d write. He knew he lacked eloquence.
Then she pulled an envelope from the pocket of her robe.
“Here. This is for you.”
That gave him the courage to hand her his letter. They opened and read them at the same time.
I love being the number one person in your life. I love you because you know what to say to calm me down when I’m mad or upset. I love to see you push your glasses up on your nose. I love it when we’re working on something, and you throw your whole self into it. I love the way you make love to me — I can’t stress that enough! I love that you are curious and brave and smart and kind and hard-working and cheerful. I love that you make me proud . I love to talk to you and hear you talk. If I live to be one hundred, I’ll find something new to love about you every day. Merry Christmas.
On the day of our wedding, I thought I couldn’t love you more. But I was wrong; I love you more with each day that passes. There are so many reasons. I love that you strike up conversations with strangers. I love that you clean after I cook, and you cook sometimes, too. When you look up from your book and smile, my heart flips. I love how much we laugh together. You consult my wishes in every move we make. When we are old and gray, I’ll still think you are the handsomest, kindest, sweetest man in the world. Nothing could ever change that. Merry Christmas
Days pass slowly, but years go by fast. Life gets in the way. Kids come along, and time and money have to stretch. Mike and Julie feel beaten down by exhaustion, tears, illness, disappointments, angry words that can’t be unsaid, silence that grows like cancer.
Now they sit across the desk from the divorce lawyer. Their bodies lean away from each other. Arms are crossed adamantly over chests. They avoid eye contact. Julie’s foot taps; Mike drums his fingers on his knee. How soon can they get out of here?
The law office, along with the rest of the world, is decorated for Christmas, and that makes everything worse. Christmas used to be their favorite time of the year. Now, the smell of fresh pine, the sight of poinsettias, and the sound of insistent carols is torture. Julie thinks she might die of grief before January first. Mike fears every day he is having a heart attack, judging by the pain in his chest.
“We’re here today to reach an amicable settlement of your divorce.” John Moeller, Esquire, has a dry voice. His fingers make a steeple. He’s been presiding at meetings like this for a long time; he’s taught himself to feel nothing. “You’ve both agreed to arbitration to avoid a costly and messy court trial. I have before me your lists of demands, and we’ll go through them one by one. But before we begin, your children asked me to read something.”
Moeller opens an envelope and takes out two sheets of paper. Julie and Mike gasp. The letters. They’ve been handled so many times the paper looks like wrinkled silk. For twenty years they read the letters aloud to each other on their anniversaries, and their kids were listening. At the sight of those pages, the couple’s arms uncross and they lean forward. They meet each other’s eyes and see the memories there. Before Moeller can read the first word, Mike and Julie speak at once.
“Look, maybe we should think about this further…”
“I need more time, it’s a big step…”
His face betraying nothing, Moeller folds the letters, slips them back into the envelope and hands them to Julie. Together, the couple leaves the office. Mike holds the door for her. Julie thanks him.
Moeller stands at his fifth-floor window and watches as they emerge from the building and walk down the sidewalk. They are talking, their heads close together. He steers her around a sidewalk Santa. She looks up into his face as she takes his arm.
A small smile disturbs the attorney’s impassive countenance.
“Merry Christmas,” he says softly. “Merry Christmas.”
Gabriel was just an ordinary cat. Nothing special about him. Yet he knew, he always knew when someone was about to die. Then he’d appear at that person’s door, establish himself on the bed and stay until the last breath. He’d become a legend in the nursing home where he was the resident therapy pet. People joked about him at breakfast: “Well, I didn’t sleep so well last night, but at least I didn’t get a visit from Gabriel.”
Sally often sat by the bedsides of patients who were near death. She didn’t wait to be asked; she simply saw a need and filled it. Nobody really knew why. There was speculation that she was lonely, that she was a busybody, that she’d once been a doctor and was now atoning for some horrible mistake. Like a seasoned politician, Sally neither confirmed nor denied. She just went her way. Quiet, watchful, sleek and self-contained.
If directly questioned, she’d say, “What would it be like to be at the end of one’s life and not see a familiar face?” There was no answer to that, and eventually everyone came to expect her, to count on her presence in those last moments.
So when an elderly man, a friend, lay dying on Christmas Eve, Sally was there. The corridor outside the old man’s room had been minimally decorated by the staff. After they’d given out night meds, fetched extra blankets, filled water glasses and turned down the lights, they strung a tinsel garland around the nurses’ station, hauled a silver tree out of the supply closet and stuck it at the end of the hall. It was about all they had the energy for, what with the sore feet and backaches.
Sally stood in the hall and watched. She didn’t offer to help or make suggestions as to how she’d do it. Nevertheless, her wordless scrutiny made the staff nervous. They exhaled when she stepped back into the dying man’s room.
He was conscious. “Sal? Is that you?” His voice was weak, but she heard.
“Of course it is, Homer. Who else? Not your very important daughter-in-law and not your oh-so-busy son. Want to wet your mouth? You can have ice chips. I asked.”
“No, don’t want ‘em.” He coughed convulsively. “What day is it?”
“December twenty-fourth. Christmas Eve.”
“Can’t die today or tomorrow, then. Spoil Christmas for my family.”
“I guess you’ll die when it’s your time, Homer.”
Sally held back her opinion about his family. They both knew he’d been deposited at the nursing home to breathe his last where it wouldn’t inconvenience the relatives. They were gathered around a festive table at that very moment. When Sally thought of his family laughing and feasting while their father lay dying, her fingers curved into claws.
He changed the subject. “You seen that durn cat? Slinks around here like a shadow, shows up when a guy’s about to croak, curls up on the bed and purrs him out of this world.”
She was familiar with the cat, a large, inky tom named Gabriel. In fact, Gabriel was prowling the hall outside Homer’s room, arching his back and rubbing his whiskery face on the door. She saw no need to mention it.
“Is there anything you want, Homer?”
He stopped plucking at the bedsheet and regarded her with surprising clarity. “Well, I don’t want that damn cat, that’s for sure. There is something, but you probably won’t want to bother, though.”
Sally nodded. “I’ll be back in an hour,” she said. “Don’t leave yet.”
“I think he’s gone,” Sally said to the night nurse. It was three a.m. and they heard the lonely wail of a freight train in the distance.
“So many choose to go with the train,” the nurse murmured.
She walked with Sally back into Homer’s room, then stopped short inside the threshold. They stood in a Christmas snow-globe. Starry lights outlined the bed. Fragrant orange and clove garland draped the window. A tiny cedar tree cast its twinkling shadow on the ceiling. Carols filled the air. In the middle of all that holiday cheer, the dead man smiled.
“He wanted one last Christmas,” Sally said, smiling back at Homer. She made a sound in her throat that might have been a purr.
Gabriel padded off down the corridor, tail swishing. He wasn’t needed that night.
Jody had an unusual sense of mortality. While most of us know in an academic way that we will indeed die some day, in our hearts we don’t believe it. Time stretches to the horizon, and we are prone to squander precious days. Not Jody. Jody knew there was no forever.
Maybe because she was a Christmas baby, she had a mystical turn of mind. When she was a child, she dreamed time was a river, sometimes wide, sometimes narrow, both calm and fierce, but always ending in obliteration in the sea of infinity. It made her aware at an early age how limited her time in the river was and the inevitable end that awaited. That knowledge informed the way she lived her life.
Jody did the usual things: education, job, first apartment, friends, hobbies, but she did them mindfully, zestfully. This was especially apparent in December when she celebrated both her birthday and the season. She held a party every year, saying without irony that it was for her and baby Jesus. She filled her home with candles and greenery, set a fragrant pine stretching up to kiss the ceiling, and served delicious food and warm hospitality. There was always a crowd.
Jody had loads of friends, but she never found The One, somehow. There were men in her life, romantic and platonic, but no marriage, no children. She enjoyed life as it was, although she felt a pang when she saw an old couple leaning toward each other, or when she passed a park full of children. Still, she trusted her journey on the river. She believed she was where she was meant to be.
When Jody’s seventieth December came around, she felt old and tired for the first time. She was not up to throwing her usual party. There was no one special with whom to celebrate, after all. Her friends hastily assembled a pub gathering on December 23rd, running in to raise a glass and sing Happy Birthday before getting on with their lives. It was the eve of the Eve, after all, and people had places to go, things to do.
A man at the bar watched the festivities, raising his own glass to her. When she finally sat alone staring at the Christmas lights around the mirror, he approached her.
“Happy birthday,” he said. “I can’t believe the part about it being your seventieth, though. Mother Nature couldn’t possibly be so kind.”
Jody gave him the wary smile she reserved for men in bars, but then she looked again. There was something different about this one. An energy, a glow that emanated from him like an aura. She liked the way his eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled. What the hell; she wasn’t getting any younger. She took a chance.
“Thanks,” she said. “Do you ever think of time as a river?”
Unsurprised by the question, he considered it seriously. “I think life has currents that carry us and if we don’t fight it, if we go with the flow, we end up where we need to be. Do you believe in karma?”
They talked for hours. They discovered they were both voracious readers and liked the same books, secretly wrote poetry, took long walks they refused to call hikes, loved being with people and loved solitude, watched Netflix movies, and got excited about Christmas. And yes, they both believed in time’s river and the turning wheel of karma. Was it one of life’s cruel ironies that they’d met so late in life? Were there any days left for them?
Forever is composed of Nows, Emily Dickinson said. They agreed that they had Now.
Each day counted; each day was a celebration of their life together; each day was golden. The roar of the infinite sea ahead could be plainly heard. Peacefully, hand in hand, they floated toward it. Their wedding bands held the inscription: For the rest of forever.
Owen could flat tell you some bad job stories. There was the winter he worked as a ranch hand, walking miles in the numbing cold to break the ice on the cattle troughs. And the year he washed dishes in a Chinese restaurant, hunching his shoulders against abuse screamed in a language he didn’t understand. Maybe the worst was the time he spent as an orderly in a nursing home. Talk about God’s waiting room! He was torn between compassion and horror as he watched the old folks slowly collapse in on themselves like wet paper.
So writing horoscopes was a vacation, really. He arrived at the newspaper office early every morning and spent a few hours cranking out horoscopes for the next day. True, his space was barely bigger than a broom closet. In fact, it had been a broom closet before the managing editor, who happened to be Owen’s uncle, decided to save money by hiring his own in-house writer on the cheap. Owen could hardly believe he finally had a job that didn’t suck.
He knew zip about horoscopes, but he had some reference books, some stuff about stars and cusps and the moon in the seventh house. He got so muddled trying to make sense of it that he gave up and just sprinkled a few buzzwords into whatever he felt like writing for each sign. Nobody noticed he had no clue what he was doing.
Janice read her horoscope every day, and often shook her head in puzzlement. “Who writes this crap?” she’d ask aloud. Nobody answered because she lived alone. Once in a while, though, the horoscope fit her like a glove. Then it felt prescient and wise. She’d think about it all day and try to apply it to her life.
This morning the newspaper was full of holiday ads. She acknowledged drearily that Christmas was coming. Again. And just like last year and the year before that, she had nobody to celebrate with. When you’re alone at Christmas, nose pressed to the windows of other people’s lives, it all seems like something dreamed up by an evil god to remind you what a loser you are.
She turned to her horoscope and read: You are loved. There is someone who counts on seeing you every day but is too shy to approach you. Open your heart to the possibilities that abound, and you will be led in the right direction.
Janice sat up straight, electrified. Who looked for her, who counted on seeing her? She just knew it was a man. It could be the guy in the mailroom. He was always nice when he dropped the mail in her in-box. He wore a wedding ring, though. Maybe it was the bus driver who took her to work every morning. But he barely glanced at her except once when she’d dropped her fare, and then he’d sighed loudly in irritation. Well, so it had to be someone she hadn’t met yet. Today she’d be alert to kind eyes in a shy stranger’s face, and if she saw them, she’d make the first move.
Owen always ate lunch at his desk. He brought a sandwich from home and got a Coke from the vending machine. But on that day, the December air was unseasonably warm, the sun poured down like a blessing, and the air rang with Christmas carols. He decided to venture across the street and try one of a long line of food trucks that ringed the park. Before he left, he counted the few crumpled bills in his pocket to make sure he had enough.
Janice had the same idea about the food trucks. She liked the chance to get out of the office for a while, especially on a balmy December day like this one. She pulled her hat off and stuffed it in her pocket as she waited in line. She couldn’t see how the sun caught the red highlights in her hair and made them sparkle.
But Owen could. He looked at her appreciatively; she noticed and smiled at him.
“Great day, isn’t it?” she said. “It’s like a gift, a day like this. Like a Christmas present. My horoscope this morning said today would be special.”
Owen smiled back. “What’s your sign?” he asked, mentally searching through what he’d written the day before.
“I’m a Leo,” he said. “Mine said I’d meet someone special when I least expected it.”
They looked at each other for a long moment.
“Do you believe that stuff?” Janice asked.
“Not really,” Owen said with a shrug.
“No, me neither. Well, have a nice day.”
She turned and waded into the crowd.
Owen stood looking after her, and he saw her wooly hat fall from her coat pocket.
“Miss!” he called, scooping it up. “Scorpio! Your hat.”
She turned and waited for him to catch up. He looked down at her upturned face and felt something move in the vicinity of his heart.
“I do believe in horoscopes, actually,” he said.
“So do I. I believe in them, too.”
The next day, every horoscope was the same: This will be the best Christmas ever.
(Now available on Amazon in both paperback and E-book formats.)
When a distant relative, an Amish teenage girl, asks to come for a visit, Mrs. E. can’t say no. Anna May Bontrager is pretty, smart, and discontented with her life. She meets a charming young carnival worker named Joey, who rides a motorcycle and has Bad Boy written all over him. What could possibly go wrong? Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine must call on all the wisdom they’ve earned and learned in their long lives to cope with the complications Anna May brings. In Chapter One, Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine take a tour bus to Anna May’s home territory.
The summer morning fell open before them like a ripe cantaloupe. Golden and green fields stretched to the horizon on either side of the bus. The sky was as round and blue as an overturned bowl. Outside, serenity reigned. Inside was a different matter.
“The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round,” Maxine sang.
“Stop that!” Mrs. Entwhistle clapped her hands over her ears. “Now you’ve got it in my head and I’ll be hearing it all day.”
“It’s called an earworm, and you’re welcome,” Maxine said, grinning.
Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine were diligent about snagging the first seats in the tour bus. Mrs. Entwhistle needed to see the horizon. She hated to admit she got motion sickness, but it couldn’t be denied. If she had a front-row seat and kept her eyes straight ahead, she could manage. Some of the other passengers muttered about people who felt entitled to the best spots, and Mrs. Entwhistle felt bad about that, but she said, “Needs must when the devil drives.”
“I wonder what that even means,” Maxine mused.
“Don’t know, but my mother always said it when she was pushed to extremes,” Mrs. Entwhistle replied.
“Speaking of extremes, I’ve really got to go,” Maxine whispered.
Mrs. Entwhistle craned her neck around for a perilous look backward. Her stomach immediately gave a warning lurch. Eyes front!
“I don’t see anyone heading toward the restroom,” Mrs. Entwhistle reported. “Go ahead.”
“But I just saw Frank come out a few minutes ago.”
They gazed at each other in mutual consternation. Frank’s recent presence in the unisex bathroom was a serious deterrent.
“I’ve got disinfecting wipes,” Mrs. Entwhistle said, reaching for her big tote bag.
“And I’ve got air freshener,” Maxine said, patting her capacious purse. “But still…”
“I know. Do you think you can wait until we get to the hotel?”
“Maybe, if I sit very still,” Maxine said.
They saw Frank’s wife, Mary Alice, heading for the back of the bus.
“How does she live with that every day?” Maxine wondered out loud.
“Perhaps she’s lost her sense of smell.” Mrs. Entwhistle’s nose wrinkled at the thought.
They laughed, but not too hard. Maxine couldn’t afford it.
“So here we are,” Maxine said, “one of us with a needy bladder and the other with carsickness. Tell me again why we’re on a bus trip?”
“Cheer up, honey. We’ll be there in a few minutes. See, there’s the city limits sign: Seltzburg, An Amish Community. I guess I should feel like I’m coming home, even though I’ve never set foot here before.”
Mrs. Entwhistle had distant ties to the region. Her grandfather on her mother’s side had been brought up nearby in an Amish family. Mrs. Entwhistle had been indoctrinated from an early age on stories about Jonas Hershberger’s courage, industry, and kindness, and she loved to pass those stories along. Despite her resolution to not become one of those boring old people who repeats herself, she couldn’t resist a good opening, and here one was.
“Jonas Hershberger,” Mrs. Entwhistle told Maxine again, “left his home and family when he was sixteen and moved south. Just think, he didn’t know anybody, English was his second language, and he had only an eighth-grade education. Can you imagine the courage and resourcefulness he must have had?”
Jonas prospered through hard work and frugality, opening a small repair shop and soon becoming the go-to guy for broken lawnmowers and washing machines back in the days when household items were repaired, not discarded. He married a Southern girl who shared his work ethic and careful way with money, and somehow they parlayed the little repair shop into a general store. Then they bought a couple acres of land just outside of town, raised goats and chickens, kept a cow for milk, and introduced several tow-headed, intelligent children to the world. One of them was Mrs. Entwhistle’s mother.
Family folklore celebrated the quick-witted ancestor who piled strength upon strength, becoming modestly rich while never quite losing the trace of Pennsylvania Dutch accent that made his j’s into ch’s and his w’s into v’s. “I chust thought if you vas going that vay anyhow…”
Mrs. Entwhistle’s memories of her grandfather had faded to a comfortable sepia brightened now and then by the retelling of family stories. Until she got the letter.
Anna May’s calloused bare feet hardly registered the feel of the splintery wooden floor. The deck outside the restaurant was in full sun and the patio umbrellas weren’t much help against the heat. She hoped the sweat on her forehead wasn’t about to drip on the customers.
“That’s a BLT, egg salad on rye, and a cheeseburger; all with iced tea,” she said, writing rapidly on her pad.
Once she’d turned in this order, her shift was over. Pop would be waiting in the buggy. The horse would be standing patiently at the hitching rail, flicking his tail at the flies that literally bugged his days. Anna May sighed inwardly at the thought of the slow jog home, the smell of liver and onions that would be floating from the kitchen (because it was Tuesday), and the chores she’d toil at until dark.
As an Amish girl, working at a paying job in the community was a privilege extended to her only for the benefit of the family. Mom and Pop reminded her of that every time she handed over her paycheck, receiving only a small allowance in return. They could withdraw their permission at any time. Then she’d be stuck on the farm all day, every day. The tourists who made up the restaurant’s clientele could be annoying, but at least they were new faces. Anna May tried to tamp down the restlessness that made her toss in her bed at night.
School had been a wonderland for her. Text books the other kids found boring opened new worlds to her, and the library was a constant source of joy. She wasn’t allowed to check out novels from the school library, but if she finished her schoolwork, she could spend the rest of study hall reading. She got through Lorna Doone and Treasure Island that way. Having to leave before she finished David Copperfield was a continuing sadness.
With her sixteenth birthday, the education compelled by the state ended. Amish kids didn’t graduate from high school. High school was considered a bridge too far, a temptation too great. Maybe young people exposed to science and literature and trigonometry wouldn’t want to return to the farm, to the Amish way of life. Worse yet, maybe raging teenage hormones would promote a romance with an English person – a non-Amish individual. That was something to be avoided at all costs.
Anna May knew all that, but on the eve of her sixteenth birthday, she approached her father. She had to at least try.
“Pop, do you think it might be possible for me to stay in school a little bit longer?” She’d clasped her hands together to stop their trembling.
“Why, Anna May, what would you do with all that book learning?” Pop smiled indulgently at his bright daughter. “You’ll get married, have a houseful of children and be a good Amish mother like your Mom. You can read and figure better than most already. Any more learning would just make you discontented.”
Too late, Anna May thought. She bowed her head in submission.
The tour bus disgorged its passengers at the hotel’s front doors under a canopy displaying the sign, Seltzburg Inn. It was an imposing building for such a small town. Not even a town; a wide place in the road, really. But the Seltzburg Inn was within walking distance of the Seltzburg Flea Market, and it stayed solidly booked during the summer season. Town residents had quickly adjusted from living in a sleepy backwater to hustling for the tourist dollar.
Maxine quick-walked toward the bathroom while Mrs. Entwhistle scoped out the big hotel lobby. The space was filled with light and the staff seemed to wear perpetual smiles. There were huge blow-up photographs of Amish life, with the people seen only from the back, which fascinated Mrs. Entwhistle. As she worked her way down a corridor lined with pictures, Maxine rejoined her.
“Why don’t the pictures show their faces?” Maxine asked.
“They never face the camera,” Mrs. Entwhistle said. “There’s a Bible verse forbidding graven images, and they believe that applies to photographs.”
“So, no baby pictures? No wedding photos, or special occasion snapshots?”
“It seems disrespectful to picture them at all, then; it’s like an ambush,” Maxine said, and Mrs. Entwhistle agreed.
But they couldn’t help enjoying the photos of an Amish blacksmith bent over the dinner-plate-sized hoof of a patient Belgian draft horse, and a trail of ducklings waddling behind a tiny boy in a straw hat. Another featured a dog riding high atop a hay baling wagon. That made Mrs. Entwhistle miss her dog, Roger.
“I’m worried about Rog,” she said to Maxine.
She’d said that at regular intervals since they’d left home. Usually, if she traveled and couldn’t take him along, she left Roger with friends or hired someone she knew to stay at her house and look after him. But this time none of her friends were available, and she had to leave Roger at a kennel. True, it was his own vet’s facility, where Roger had been so many times that it might have seemed like home to the old fellow. But still. A dog used to sleeping on his human’s bed would have a hard time adjusting to life in a kennel. Mrs. Entwhistle had bought him a new bed to take along and filled it with one of her old sweaters and a towel from home so he’d at least have the comfort of familiar smells.
“I hope the other dogs’ barking isn’t driving him crazy,” she said.
“That’s one good thing about being deaf,” Maxine said. “I bet Roger can’t even hear them.”
That was a comforting thought, and Mrs. Entwhistle decided she’d go with it. There wasn’t a thing she could do for Roger until she got home, anyway.
Maxine and Mrs. Entwhistle always packed light. No sense in taking a lot of clothes, they agreed. Sitting on the bus didn’t call for high fashion, and besides, they were experts at mixing and matching. They picked up their two small bags from the pile of luggage dumped in the lobby by the bus driver and headed for their room. Once there, Maxine insisted on leaving the bags outside the door while she performed a reconnaissance.
She threw back the bedcovers and peeled the fitted sheet from the mattress. Illuminated by her phone’s flashlight, she ran the edge of a credit card along the mattress seams. Nodding in satisfaction when she didn’t find anything suspicious, she advanced to the bathroom, flung back the shower curtain, eyeballed the tile grout for mold, inspected the bathtub for stray hairs, flushed the toilet, and shook out a bath towel.
“It’s spotless,” Maxine decreed.
“That’s because they have Amish cleaners,” Mrs. Entwhistle said. “Did you notice the woman pushing a cleaning cart in the hall just now?”
“I did. But I didn’t know Amish women worked outside their homes.”
“I didn’t think so, either; apparently, times have changed.”
“But isn’t the whole point of being Amish making sure that you don’t change with the times?” Maxine asked.
“Well, maybe not the whole point, but a big one, anyway. Young couples can’t count on farming to make a living anymore, because the available farmland is pretty well taken. So some of the men work in trailer factories and some of the women and girls take service jobs. There’s a big tourist industry here in the summertime. I imagine it put them outside their comfort zone at first, but they adapted. They had to.”
“Surely they are capable of doing more than factory work,” Maxine said. “Aren’t any of them in professions? Teachers or doctors or something?”
“Oh, no doubt they could be, but without an education…” Mrs. Entwhistle’s voice trailed off.
“But they must go to school. It’s the law.”
“You know, that law actually went to the Supreme Court in 1972. I looked it up. The court ruled that Amish are exempt from compulsory schooling after the eighth grade because of their religious beliefs. They can quit school then, and they do.”
“The Amish believe their rural way of life only calls for the ability to read, write and do basic math. Anything beyond that might tempt their kids to stray from Amish beliefs.”
Maxine shook her head. “Well, I certainly respect their religion, but it seems a shame to arbitrarily stop learning and experiencing the world at a certain age.”
“The young people have one more option to sample what they call the English life. When they are in their mid to late teens, they can go on rumspringa.”
“I watched a television show about that,” Maxine said, pursing her lips disapprovingly. “There was a lot of drinking and drug-taking and car wrecks. Of course, that might have been exaggerated for the show.”
“Maybe,” Mrs. Entwhistle said. “But I think a fair amount of that does go on. The hope is that the kids will sow their wild oats and return to the Amish way of life. Most of them do.”
“But some don’t?”
“No. Some don’t. My grandfather didn’t. They call it ‘going high,’— Jonas went high and left the Amish.”
“My folks used his repair shop,” Maxine said. “Mother always said the children, including your mother, were beautiful, with one blonder and prettier than the next. She claimed to be jealous.”
“My mother was the youngest. Grandpa died when I was a child, but whenever I smell butterscotch, I think of him. He always had butterscotch candy in his pocket for me. I can’t remember his face, but that smell takes me right back to him. Isn’t it amazing the memories that scents trigger?”
“Not if you’re Frank’s wife,” Maxine said. She didn’t have to worry about laughing too hard now.
Tiny mewling sounds translated themselves in Mrs. Entwhistle’s sleeping brain as the cries of a kitten. She dreamed she was stroking its soft fur as it looked up at her trustingly. Gradually, she became aware that she was in fact stroking her pillow. But waking didn’t eliminate the sounds of a creature in distress.
Mrs. Entwhistle switched on the bedside lamp. When her eyes had adjusted to the light, she looked around her bedroom. Everything was in order just as she’d left it the night before.
Roger was asleep curled up on her fleece bathrobe at the foot of the bed. The old dog was almost completely deaf, and nothing short of an earthquake disturbed him these days. Gently, she scooted him off her robe without waking him and fished for her slippers. She’d have a look around.
Holding onto the double railings that Floyd had installed when they’d turned sixty-five, she descended the stairs to the main floor. The whimpering sounds seemed to be coming from the front of the house. She flipped on the outside floodlights and threw open the door.
A huddled figure on the porch swing sat up, and the little bundle in her arms traded whimpers for a full-throated roar. It was a baby. On her porch. In the middle of the night.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” Mrs. Entwhistle asked above the racket.
“It’s me, Mrs. Entwhistle. Delilah. And J.J.”
“Delilah! What in the world?”
“I had, like, nowhere else to go,” Delilah said. “I just got on the bus and came. But it was really late when we finally got here and I didn’t want to disturb you, so I thought we’d just wait here on the porch until morning. I guess I fell asleep. Did J.J. wake you?”
“That’s neither here nor there, child. What’s happened? Why aren’t you at Jean’s?”
Mrs. Entwhistle had first encountered Delilah during the Route 66 road trip she and Maxine had taken. After being car-jacked and left alone on a deserted desert road, she’d come upon a remote cabin where a very pregnant teenager, Delilah, was hiding, awaiting the return of her lover. When Delilah went into labor, Mrs. Entwhistle delivered the baby and eventually delivered both of them to Delilah’s Aunt Jean. That was more than a year ago and several states away. She couldn’t fathom what brought these unlikely visitors to her door, but first things first.
“Come inside, honey. We’ll wake the neighbors with all the fuss this one is making. Is he hungry?”
“Probably, and wet and upset. Me, too.”
Delilah drooped under Mrs. Entwhistle’s scrutiny. Her eyes were smudged with purple shadows stark against the pallor of her skin. J.J. stopped crying, stuck his thumb in his mouth and eyeballed the strange house. He looked world-weary, as if he’d already seen more than he could process. Delilah deposited him on the couch and plopped down beside him with a sigh of exhaustion. Mrs. Entwhistle’s heart went out to her.
She’s worn slap out, and the baby is, too. Whatever is wrong will wait until they’re in better shape to talk about it.
“Let’s get J.J. changed and fed before we do anything else,” Mrs. Entwhistle said. “Do you have diapers with you?”
Delilah dug in a big bag she’d been lugging on one shoulder and produced a diaper, handing it to Mrs. Entwhistle with a mute look of appeal.
Mrs. Entwhistle flipped the little boy on his back, unsnapped his onesie, and changed the diaper expertly. Some skills last forever, and hers were still so effective that J.J. relaxed. He sensed he was in the hands of a pro. She tucked him under his mother’s arm and went into the kitchen.
Oatmeal, tea, toast. It was only four a.m., but those two needed to eat. She set the table and went back to fetch Delilah, only to find the girl sound asleep. J.J., however, looked up trustingly and held out his arms. Mrs. Entwhistle was reminded of the kitten in her dream. She eased him from his mother’s grasp and carried him into the kitchen. Holding him on her lap, she fed him bites of cereal and toast while she drank a cup of tea. As his tummy filled, his eyes drooped. Soon, he leaned against her and slept. His silky hair tickled her chin, and she breathed in the nostalgic scent of baby shampoo.
“My goodness, J.J., that takes a person back,” she said softly. “Some things don’t change. I wondered if I’d ever see you again, and now here you are.”
It was tempting to sit there forever, but she had things to do. She carefully deposited him beside his mother on the sofa and tiptoed out of the room. Grabbing her phone, she hit Maxine’s number.
Wait ‘til she hears this.
Maxine crept into Mrs. Entwhistle’s living room to survey the sleeping mother and child. Her grin stretched from ear to ear. She pumped her fist in the air and mouthed “yippee!” Mrs. Entwhistle pulled her into the kitchen and shut the swinging door.
“Yippee, indeed,” Mrs. Entwhistle said softly, “I’m glad to see them too, but the big question is, why are they here? Something bad has to have happened for Delilah to bring the baby all this way on the bus.”
“I know, but I’m just so tickled to they’re here, whatever brought them,’” Maxine said. “What do you think it was?”
“I can’t imagine she had a falling-out with Jean. They seemed so close and so delighted to have each other. Maybe something with Delilah’s parents? We’ll just have to wait until she wakes up and can tell us.”
At that moment, they heard the shuffle of little feet and the door moved an inch. Mrs. Entwhistle jumped to open it, remembering how little fingers could get pinched. J.J. held his blanket to his cheek with one hand and regarded them with big eyes. His tentative smile brought both women to the melting point.
“Oh, my goodness,” Maxine murmured, scooping him into her arms. “Hi, J.J. Do you remember me?”
The baby searched her face and reached for her glasses. “I think he does remember me,” Maxine said, dodging his fingers. “Or even if he doesn’t, he likes me.” She tickled the little boy’s tummy until he laughed a full, rich chortle that made them laugh, too.
While Delilah slept on, the women fed J.J. a second breakfast of scrambled eggs and orange juice. The family high chair had long ago been donated to charity. J.J. was too small to sit at the table by himself, so they took turns holding him on their laps as he ate. His sloppy attempts at feeding himself were met with indulgent smiles.
“Hasn’t he changed!” Mrs. Entwhistle marveled. “He’s about one now, but walking already and so growny!”
“Yes, but I’d know him just the same,” Maxine said, spooning a bite of egg into J.J.’s mouth, which he opened like a baby bird. “He still has the look of Delilah, especially around the eyes, but I don’t know where those ears comes from.”
“Papa, I guess. Wherever he is.”
Delilah’s lover, who had also been her high school teacher, had made a hasty exit two steps ahead of a statutory rape charge and, as far as Mrs. Entwhistle knew, had never been heard from again.
“It’s just a pure shame this little boy will never know his daddy,” she said. “But who knows, he may get a new, better daddy. Delilah is just a child herself, and she’ll marry at some point.”
“Well, I hope she makes a better choice next time.” Maxine shook her head.
“It really wasn’t her fault,” Mrs. Entwhistle said. “She was seduced at sixteen by her teacher, an authority figure. She was vulnerable and gullible. Remember how we were at sixteen?”
They both smiled, shaking their heads, sharing unspoken memories. Their long friendship stretched back to their childhoods, and their histories were an open book to one another. Once Maxine had given Mrs. Entwhistle a kitchen towel that said, “You’ll always be my best friend. You know too much.”
Delilah made her appearance at that moment, yawned her way to the table, sat down and burst into tears. Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine didn’t say a word. They remembered that Delilah had to get a certain amount of crying out of her system, and until she did there was no use trying to comfort her. Maxine pushed over a box of tissues, and Mrs. Entwhistle poured tea. Then they went on feeding and talking to the baby. Slowly, Delilah composed herself and reached for her tea.
“I guess you’re wondering why we’re here,” she began, setting down her cup in the saucer with a clink.
“You don’t have to tell us until you’re ready,” Mrs. Entwhistle said. “Why don’t you go upstairs and take a shower, change your clothes? You’ll feel better when you’re put together for the day.”
Delilah looked doubtfully at her baby boy. “What about J.J.?”
“We’ve got him. Go on. The bathroom is the first door on the right, and there are towels in the linen closet.”
“I didn’t bring any clean clothes, though,” Delilah admitted. “Just grabbed a change of underwear and a few things for J.J., and we were out of there.”
“Okay, let me see what I can find.”
Mrs. Entwhistle went upstairs to Diane’s old room. She’d been pleading with both her adult children to take what they wanted from their bedrooms so she could, once and for all, clear the rooms out, but her pleas had fallen on deaf ears. She thought both Diane and Tommy secretly liked the idea of their childhood domains remaining as shrines.
Diane’s closet contained a few items of clothing so out of style they were in again: acid-washed jeans and concert tee shirts. Mrs. Entwhistle took the best of them and put them in the bathroom. She wasn’t sure about the size, but Delilah was so thin now that she could get into almost anything.
Finally, Delilah returned to the kitchen, scrubbed and wearing Diane’s cast-offs, looking like she was about twelve. Mrs. Entwhistle couldn’t help remembering the same look of bewildered panic in Delilah’s eyes when she went into labor in that remote desert cabin.
Mrs. Entwhistle waited until the girl had eaten, then leaned forward and said, “Now, tell.”
And Delilah did. “Aunt Jean died,” she said starkly, her eyes brimming with tears again. “She had a heart attack, I guess, and died in her sleep. I was the one who found her. She never got up before noon, but when she hadn’t come out of her room by two, I knocked on the door. She didn’t answer, so I went in and…I knew right away. She was so still. The doctor said she had an enlarged heart, and it didn’t have much room in there, you know.”
Jean was a little person. She’d looked a miniature picture of health in her spangled tutus and light-up sneakers, but inside her tiny body lurked the seeds of heart disease that would kill her just as the happiest chapter of her life unfolded. Mrs. Entwhistle’s own heart squeezed in sympathy. Life was cruel sometimes.
When Delilah’s father caved in to her mother’s decree that Delilah could not return home with her baby, Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine had driven them to Aunt Jean’s house in the ghost town of Glenrio. The old town straddled the border between Texas and New Mexico, and Mrs. Entwhistle thought it also straddled the border between fantasy and reality. There Jean lived in her Victorian mansion, alone since the death of her husband. When Delilah and J.J. entered her life, Jean was reborn to love and laughter. Her niece became the daughter she’d never had, and the baby her grandchild.
She had plans, Jean did, and the resources to make them happen. Delilah would finish her high school education with a home tutor. Then she’d go to college. J.J. would grow up with the example of strong women before his eyes. But those plans died with Jean.
“I tried to stay in the house after Jean died,” Delilah continued, “but, well, you remember that house.”
Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine nodded, their heads filled with memories of high ceilings, dark, ornate woodwork, heavy swathes of velvet draperies and creaky old floorboards underfoot.
“I guess I’m a big scaredy-cat, but it was spooky without Jean. I kept thinking I saw her around every corner. And at night, that old house rattled and banged like a ghost was trying to get in. I know it was lame of me to be scared in the safest place I’d ever lived, but I was. Besides that, I missed Aunt Jean so much. It was hard to be in her house without her. It just felt so empty.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Entwhistle murmured. “I know that feeling.”
“Daddy is the executor of Aunt Jean’s estate, and he made the arrangements for her burial. He said she left everything to me, and eventually when it’s all settled, I guess I’ll get a lot of money. Daddy said it will take time, though, for the will to go through probate court or something so he can sell the house. I mean, who’d buy that house? Who’d want to live in Glenrio? Without Aunt Jean, there’s nothing there.”
The desolate stretch of desert was reflected in Delilah’s face.
“So Daddy said to come home with him, and I did, even though I knew Mother didn’t want me there. Like, I didn’t know what else to do. I stayed in the guest cottage and tried to keep out of her sight. Daddy was great; he came to see J.J. every day. But he acted like he was sneaking around. Once we saw Mother looking at us out the window, and he quick handed J.J. back to me with the guiltiest look.”
Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine had met Delilah’s mother a couple of times. Only their good manners prevented them from calling her what they thought she was.
How could any woman reject not only her daughter, but her first grandchild? Mrs. Entwhistle telegraphed silently to Maxine.
She doesn’t deserve them, Maxine telegraphed back.
Delilah continued her story. “I was so wrecked about Jean that I didn’t know what the heck was going on. I guess I wasn’t picking up on the hints. Mother came out to the cottage one day and laid it on the line. She said I was trying to get between her and Daddy, making him be disloyal to her, using my brat—that’s what she called her grandson—as an excuse to be like, a lazy leech.”
Delilah exhaled a long, shaky breath.
“After that, I just had to get out of there, but I didn’t know where to go. Then I thought of you and how you rescued me before. I know it’s bad to barge in on you like this. I should have at least called. I’m sorry; I can’t think straight right now.”
“You did exactly the right thing, child.” Mrs. Entwhistle gripped Delilah’s hand and squeezed. “We’re so happy to see you and J.J. again. Why, I was afraid I’d never lay eyes on the only baby I ever brought into this world, and here you are. It’s like a dream come true.”
Delilah managed a watery smile. She hadn’t been anyone’s dream come true for a long time.
“And you’re welcome at my house, too,” Maxine said. “We both have loads of space, plenty of room for you and J.J.” She smiled shyly and added, “Room in our hearts, too.”
That did it for Delilah. Her head went down on her folded arms, and she sobbed. Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine exchanged worried looks, but they let the girl cry it out. They knew it sometimes takes a lot of tears to wash away the debris of life. After a few minutes, Delilah lifted her head and reached for the tissue box. She wiped her face and blew her nose.
J.J. had been remarkably quiet during their conversation, but he’d had enough of sitting still. “Ow!” he said, pointing to the window. “Ow! OW!”
“He wants to go outside,” Delilah translated. “He loves to be outdoors and won’t let up until I take him.” She stood and picked up her son. “Come on, then, big boy, let’s go out.”
Mother and child stepped out into the rosy dawn of a summer morning, and when they’d shut the kitchen door behind them, Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine sighed simultaneously. They shook their heads, their lips in thin lines.
“Well. I never,” Maxine said.
“Nor I. I’m at a loss, Max. What do we do now?”
“Well, for one thing, we don’t have to worry about custody. Delilah must be eighteen by now, or close to it, so we can’t be accused of kidnapping her. She’s an adult in the eyes of the law.”
That was a relief. When they’d been carting the girl and her newborn all over the Southwest, they’d worried that Delilah’s mother would make trouble which they’d have no legal standing to resolve.
“No, Cora, this isn’t the time to try to figure things out and make plans. We’ll give Delilah some space, help her with the baby, feed her up a little, and just let things unfold.”
Mrs. Entwhistle thought that there never was a better friend than Maxine.
Upstairs, Roger raised his head. His nose wrinkled as he sniffed the air. Something was different today. He rubbed his face on the bedspread to wake up his eyes, then stood and walked stiffly to the edge of the bed, where he looked down and calibrated his jump. When he landed, all four legs went out from under him. He lay there on his stomach for a minute, taking stock. There was still that intriguing smell in the air. The old dog waddled to the staircase and made his breathtaking descent.
He appeared in the kitchen, tousle-headed and curious. He saw the two humans he loved most in the world sitting in their usual places at the table; there was no sign of that mysterious other. He shuffled to the door and looked over his shoulder at Mrs. Entwhistle. It was time for his morning foray into the yard.
She smiled as she opened the door, knowing what a surprise was in store for him. Roger made his way carefully down the steps to the grass and squinted into the bright sunshine. There it was, the owner of that wonderful odor–a tiny human.
Roger’s tail went into overdrive as he trotted forward like a puppy. Roger adored tiny humans. He’d helped raise the Entwhistle grandchildren and grieved when they grew older and graduated to perfunctory pats on his head. Now here was a new little person who squealed with delight at the sight of him, so loudly that even his deaf ears picked it up.
Roger submitted to a tight hug, and covered J.J.’s face with kisses in return. The baby jabbered, and the old dog understood every syllable. Roger was in heaven.
“I’m under the doctor for the high blood pressure, so I take these blue ones, and the little red ones are betty blockers – or something like that.” Jacinta O’Reilly furrowed her brow as she shook her day-by-day compartmentalized pill holder under Mrs. Entwhistle’s nose.
Jacinta was apt to get a little confused in her old age, although, as Mrs. Entwhistle put it, she’d never been the brightest headlight on the highway. Now Jacinta paused to think.
“The only Betty I can think of is Betty Jo Smith, who used to teach Sunday School. Do you remember her?”
Maxine opened her mouth to answer but closed it again after a fierce look and a hissed whisper from Mrs. Entwhistle: “Don’t go down that rabbit hole.”
They were sitting in the day room at the Shady Rest Assisted Living Center. Mrs. Entwhistle and her best friend, Maxine, visited the Shady Rest every Wednesday afternoon. They were as old as many of the residents, but had been blessed with strong constitutions and resulting good health.
“Visiting is the least we can do; we’re so lucky,” Mrs. Entwhistle always said. But both of them dreaded it.
“It’s the organ recitals that get to me,” Maxine said as she drove them in her Lincoln Navigator. “You’d think they’d be glad to take a mental break from all their health problems and think about something new.”
She always brought a book to read aloud, but seldom got through more than a page or two before someone, often Jacinta, was reminded of an ailment that needed discussing. In detail.
But despite their frustration Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine continued to visit, knowing how long the days were for the residents. Today Maxine had brought a book by Fannie Flagg that she just knew would be a hit. Instead, they were talking about Jacinta’s pills again. Betty blocker, indeed!
Never the most patient of people, Mrs. Entwhistle was tapping her foot. Maxine watched with apprehension as the tapping grew faster and faster.
“I think it’s time for us to go,” she said when she thought her friend had reached critical mass and was about to blow. “We’ll see y’all next week. Come on, Cora, you need to let Roger out.”
Roger was Mrs. Entwhistle’s aged Shih’Tzu and it was certainly true that he needed to go out more often than ever before in his long life. Mrs. Entwhistle frequently had to get up during the night and escort the old dog down the stairs and out the back door. She accompanied him on these midnight excursions because she’d seen coyotes in the woods behind her house and knew Roger would be a mere McNugget to those wild scavengers. She had perfect confidence that she, at age seventy-nine, could fend them off through sheer force of personality.
Mrs. Entwhistle was uncharacteristically quiet on the way home. Maxine darted glances over at her, knowing something was coming. And it did.
“Max, do you ever want to just get up and go?”
“What do you mean? Go where?”
“You know, just hit the road. Remember that movie, Thelma and Louise? Like that.”
“I hope not just like that! They drove off a cliff at the end.”
“True. True. I wouldn’t want to do that. But I think I would like to go somewhere, get away from my routine and experience something new.”
“What brought this on?”
“I guess it’s being with the Shady Rest folks,” Mrs. Entwhistle said slowly. “I’ve known all of them for years. They used to be interested in other people and what was going on in the world, but now all they can think about is their ailments and medications and doctor visits.”
“Well, when you don’t feel good, that does tend to occupy your mind, don’t you think?”
“Oh, sure, I get that. But it’s just sad. There’s more to this world than counting out your pills. I think I’d like to get out there and see some of it. One last time.”
Mrs. Entwhistle sounded wistful. She and Floyd had never been able to travel as they’d planned when he retired. In fact, except for the trip she and Maxine had taken to Hawaii courtesy of her Publishers Clearinghouse winnings, she hadn’t been much of anywhere.
“It’s not that I don’t love my home. I’m grateful for it,” she continued, “and I’m not talking about a big elaborate cruise or anything. I just wish I’d seen more of the U.S.A. when I was younger. Do you think it’s too late?”
“What exactly do you have in mind?” Maxine asked.
“Let’s just pack up the car and take off.”
“Do you have your heart set on a destination?”
“I’d like to see the Southwest,” Mrs. Entwhistle replied. “You know how I love the book, Lonesome Dove. I’ve read it four times. Well, I’d like to see that countryside. Tumbleweeds and pueblos and the like.”
Maxine’s face lit up. “I know! I have a niece in Santa Monica who’s going to have her first baby in about a month. Her mama has passed. You remember, my youngest sister, Lucille?”
Mrs. Entwhistle nodded. “Yes, that was sad. She was too young.”
They were quiet for a minute, reflecting on the vagaries of life and how fast things could change. Maxine’s sister had gotten up expecting a normal day and had a fatal heart attack. You just never knew.
“I’d love to stand in for Lucille, see the baby and maybe help out a bit if Lucy Junior needs it. I know Lucy will miss her mother so much when the baby comes.”
“Santa Monica is near Los Angeles,” Mrs. Entwhistle said. She pulled out her phone and conjured up a map with a certain smugness at being able to do so. Her phone had caused her many hours of frustration and confusion as she was learning to use it, but she felt confident in her skills now.
“You know what? We could take Route 66 all the way like they did on that television show. We’d see some scenery and the route is far enough south that we shouldn’t get into terrible weather if we left right away. What do you think?”
The more they talked about it, the more they liked the idea. “We could take my car,” Maxine said, “it’s big and comfortable.”
“The gas, though,” Mrs. Entwhistle said.
“Yes, but we’ll be splitting the cost,” Maxine said. She was sensitive about what it took to drive her behemoth of a car down the road. “And my car really isn’t all that inefficient. I only drive it on short hops, so of course, it guzzles gas. But on the road, I bet it would do fine.”
“Hmm. Okay. We certainly couldn’t take my car, it’s pretty well toast. If I didn’t have the scooter, I couldn’t get around at all.”
Mrs. Entwhistle had gotten herself a pink scooter as a result of her friendship with Dex Shofield, intern and co-conspirator at the newspaper where they’d both worked, the Pantograph. Dex cut a dashing figure on his motorcycle. When Mrs. Entwhistle’s old car finally died, he convinced her to try a milder version, a Pink Vespa, herself. She loved it. She liked to say that she rode her scooter with gusto, and if gusto couldn’t come, she rode alone – a joke that never got old as far as she was concerned. She knew her contemporaries uttered dire prophecies about what would befall her for riding a scooter at her age, but that just made the experience sweeter.
“Oh!” Mrs. Entwhistle was struck by a thought. “What about my job? Jimmy Jack counts on me.”
Jimmy Jack McNamara was her editor and boss at the Pantograph where Mrs. Entwhistle worked as a reporter – the oldest reporter ever, she suspected. She’d had –let’s say creative differences with Jimmy Jack, but over time they’d developed a working relationship that both respected.
“I’m sure Jimmy Jack would let you have a vacation,” Maxine said. “You’ve been working there for over a year and have never taken time off.”
“Yes, but I don’t want just two weeks,” Mrs. Entwhistle said. “I want an open-ended time to go wherever we want, and not be worried about getting back for work.”
“Well, you know what that means.”
“I’d have to quit?”
“I guess you would.”
“I need the paycheck, though.”
They thought for a while. Then Maxine said, “Do you suppose the Pantograph would want some travel articles?”
It turned out Jimmy Jack was amenable to the idea of travel articles. He’d come a long way since the days when all he wanted to do was put out the paper with as little effort as possible. Mrs. Entwhistle had been happy to revise her initial opinion that he was indolent, indecisive and ignorant. She felt a secret pride that she’d brought him along.
“It might be just the thing to broaden our horizons,” he said when Mrs. Entwhistle broached the idea to him. “Most folks around here go by car when they travel, so it would be of interest to our readers. Do you have a planned route and destination?”
“Well, we thought we’d head for California,” Mrs. Entwhistle said. “We’ve never been there, and Maxine has a niece in Santa Monica who’s going to have a baby. She’d like to see the young’un and maybe help her niece a little bit. We thought we’d take Route 66, like on that old television show.”
Jimmy Jack looked blank and Mrs. Entwhistle remembered he was too young to remember the program. “Never mind,” she said, “It was about two young men who set out in a Corvette to drive across the country on Route 66. Before your time.”
“Do you think it’s safe, though?” Jimmy Jack asked, worry creasing his brow. “I mean, the two of you aren’t as young as you used to be.”
Mrs. Entwhistle regarded him in frosty silence long enough to make sweat pop out along his hairline. “None of us are, for that matter,” she finally said. “I think Maxine and I are the best judges of what we can do.”
“Oh, of course you are, of course,” Jimmy Jack said, “I just meant…”
“I know what you meant.”
“Well, anyway, travel articles would be great, just great. If you feel up to it…” Another frosty stare. “I mean, of course, you’d feel up to it, you could take your laptop and just send me a story whenever you like.”
Mrs. Entwhistle took mercy on him and graciously agreed to file stories whenever the spirit moved her while she continued to get her regular paycheck. Satisfied with the outcome of their meeting, she hurried home to call Maxine and tell her their path was clear, at least that aspect of it.
Roger met her at the door, his filmy old eyes searching until they found her face. Then he attempted a happy shuffle, but it made him cough and he had to settle for wagging his tail.
Or at least “see you later.” I’m going to take a hiatus from the weekly flash fiction stories I’ve been posting for a couple of years now. Creating over a hundred stories has left me muttering and stumbling like a zombie, and nobody wants to see that.
Besides, I’ve got a book to finish. The redoubtable Mrs. Entwhistle and her friend, Maxine, are taking a road trip on Route 66. You wouldn’t believe what’s been happening to them. Below is a sneak preview of this work in progress.
I’ll post more flash fiction when inspiration strikes. Meanwhile, I’ve gathered some of my stories in a book called Snapshots, available on Amazon.
I’ll miss our Sunday morning get-togethers, but we’ll talk soon.
Mrs. Entwhistle Takes a Road Trip
(Excerpt from Work in Progress)
(In Chapter Three, Mrs. Entwhistle and Maxine are driving on Route 66, having just visited the Catoosa Blue Whale in Tulsa. They’re heading for the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo when Mrs. E. experiences an urgent call of nature.)
“Max, I’ve got to have a pit stop,” Mrs. Entwhistle declared as they approached a ramshackle building set just off the road. The lopsided sign announced it was the Pigsticker Bar and Grill. Actually, the sign said Bar and Gr because some of the letters had fallen off. It wasn’t good to think about who was sticking what pigs, but Mrs. Entwhistle was desperate.
“This place looks sketchy, but they’ll at least have a bathroom. You can get a cup of tea. Well, maybe it’ll have to be coffee; it doesn’t really look like a tea-drinking place.”
Maxine surveyed the dilapidated building doubtfully. The lights had just come on in the parking lot, sparking on the gleaming chrome of a dozen motorcycles.
“I don’t know,” she began, but Mrs. Entwhistle had already pulled in, cut the engine and climbed out of the car.
“I can’t wait, Max, go ahead on in,” she said, hustling off with unusual speed to the outside door marked Cowgirls. “It’s all those Twinkies,” she called back over her shoulder.
Maxine followed more sedately. When she entered the Pigsticker, every head in the small, smoky room turned toward her. She stopped, hand on her heart. She’d never seen so many long-haired males in one place. There were man-buns, pony-tails, beaded head-bands and flowing locks unchecked on leather-clad shoulders. Everyone but her had elaborate whiskers.
“Oh,” Maxine said in a very small voice.
One of the men got up and came toward her. “Come on in, honey, don’t be scared of us,” he said, gesturing to an empty stool at the bar. “Sit yourself down and have a drink.”
He sounded so friendly that Maxine felt reassured.
“Oh, well, maybe just for a minute. My friend will be here soon.” She seated herself on the stool and tucked her feet on the brass rail.
“Now what’d you like to drink, honey?”
“Why, I guess iced tea?”
There were fond chuckles and a few comments: “Just like my grandma.” “Ain’t she sweet?” The atmosphere was positively sticky with sentiment. Maxine felt an obligation to return all that warmth. She sat up straight and smiled.
“You are all so nice!” she said. “Actually, I’ll have a beer.”
After that, time seemed to slow down and speed up at strange intervals. Maxine wondered where Mrs. Entwhistle had gotten to and what was taking so long, but her new friends kept motioning the bartender to refill her glass. They told her about their hawgs, which she learned were motorcycles, and about the road trip they were on, a trip they took every year. They loved their families, they said, but it was great to get out on the road again. Maxine nodded and asked questions when she could and drank her beer. Beers. When they started singing, she sang, too.
It was into this convivial scene that Mrs. Entwhistle finally entered. Her face was noticeably green and she clutched her stomach with one hand. But her physical ailments were forgotten at the sight of Maxine, singing and swaying with a lot of large, scruffy-looking men. Arms entwined, they harmonized on HotelCalifornia and Maxine seemed to know all the words. Mrs. Entwhistle was reminded that Maxine was a dark horse and even after all their years of friendship, she could still surprise.
“Ahem,” she tried. No response.
“Oh, hi, Cora.” Maxine finally noticed her. “Come meet my new friends.”
“Yeah, Cora, come on over here. Have yourself a beer, or do you want something stronger?”
Mrs. Entwhistle wanted nothing at all, not with the way her stomach was acting. But it seemed churlish to refuse, so she perched on the stool vacated for her next to Maxine and asked the bartender for a Shirley Temple. The crowd erupted in cheers and Mrs. Entwhistle’s back was patted rather too enthusiastically.
“I swear, they’re just like my mama,” one of the men said, and shed a few tears in his drink. “Put a little vodka in that Shirley Temple,” he whispered to the bartender. “It’ll do her good. Bless her heart.”
Soon Mrs. Entwhistle found herself swaying and singing, too. They ran through Dixie, When Irish Eyes are Smiling, Thank God I’m a Country Boy, and then she lost track. When she looked at her watch, she couldn’t believe the time.
“Maxine! We’ve got to leave right now. We’ll never find a place to spend the night if we don’t get going.”
“Wha?” Maxine seemed to be having trouble focusing her eyes. “Ish it late?”
“It’s very late.” Mrs. Entwhistle launched herself from the tall bar stool, but the floor had developed an alarming tilt since she’d first sat down. A strong hand caught her arm and held her upright.
“I don’t think you ladies will want to be driving,” the owner of the hand said.
“We have to, we need to find a place to stop for the night.”
“Now, don’t you worry about that. You ever sleep in your car before? You ain’t in no shape to drive, neither one of you. We got blankets in our saddlebags, we’ll get you all set up.”
The ladies were helped to their car and the seats were lowered. Smelly blankets were tucked around them and the windows cracked a few inches.
“There now, you ladies just have you a good sleep. We’ll be here all night and we’ll look out for you.”
Mrs. Entwhistle’s eyes seemed happy to follow this suggestion. As she drifted off to sleep, the lead sentence of her next Pantograph article wrote itself in her mind:
Today we saw a blue whale and took up with a motorcycle gang.
Corey’s bar was the fulfillment of a dream. The day his sign – Corey’sPub– went up, he shed a tear or two. He fussed over every detail, from the coasters to the bartender’s bow tie, wanting it all to be perfect. The one thing he couldn’t control, however, was his neighbor. The headquarters of the Church of Synchronicity was right next door.
“Those people don’t drink, you know,” he said darkly. “That might be a problem.”
But he’d gotten a steal on the rent so he went ahead despite his misgivings. Characteristically, he initiated the hostilities once he was settled.
“That so-called church is nothing but a cult,” he’d say to anyone who’d listen. “Just because they’ve got money and powerful members, they think they can rule the world. Well, they are not going to rule me!”
“What have they ever done to you?” I asked.
“It’s their power and the way everything they do has to be such a big secret. The members are like prisoners. Some of ‘em look like zombies. You should see the poor slobs that have to clean the kennels. I think they’re being punished for something.”
The kennels were an especially touchy point with Corey. The captive hounds were situated right behind his building and the baying drove him mad. He’d scream out the back door, “Shut up, shut up!” causing even more chaos. “Why does a church need tracking dogs?” he’d ask, a rhetorical question which he’d immediately answer himself.
His customers shuffled uneasily when Corey got going. “You’re driving business away,” I warned him. “People come in here to relax, not listen to you rant.”
He did try to talk less about the Cult Next Door, as he called them, but he started doing stupid things like posting derogatory comments on Facebook and Twitter.
“Don’t poke the bear,” I kept telling him. “Live and let live.” But he couldn’t hear me.
Rumor had it that a certain Very Important Movie Star was building an apartment on the top two floors of the church’s building. Work trucks filled the street, often blocking traffic. Corey was beside himself because his customers couldn’t get through. He looked for an opportunity for revenge. When one of the contractors stopped by one day, Corey made sure the drinks were strong and plentiful. Before long the guy was spilling all kinds of inside information, and Corey was egging him on.
“It’s got six bedrooms and each of ‘em has its own marble bathroom. There are servants’ quarters for the live-in help. The kitchen – you wouldn’t believe the finishes in that kitchen, and the cook will be the only one who sees it.”
“I’ll bet it isn’t near as fancy as you say,” Corey said, goading the guy.
“Yeah? You don’t believe me? C’mon, I’ve got the key, I’ll show you.”
Corey not only went on the sight-seeing tour, he snapped a lot of pictures with his cell phone. His guide was too plastered to notice, but everybody noticed when those pictures went viral on social media.
“What are you thinking?” I asked him. “You cost that man his job and invaded the privacy of a celebrity who has all the money in the world. You think you’re going to get away with it?”
“What can they do?” he laughed. “I just gave them some free publicity, that’s all.”
“They’ll run you off. They’ve got the cash to do it.”
“I’d never sell to them, no matter how much they offered.” Corey slammed his fist on the bar for emphasis. “They can’t make me move.”
But, of course, they could. The entire building in which his bar was located was sold – yep, to the Cult Next Door. In record time, he got an eviction notice. He had thirty days to get out.
“I’m ruined,” he moaned, head in hands. “I’ll never find another place I can afford. They’ve finished me off.”
Corey was so miserable I have to admit I avoided him for a while. I’d heard stories that he’d lost his house and was couch-surfing with friends, so I was pleasantly surprised by his appearance when I ran into him on the street a couple months later. I’d never seen him look as well-groomed – dark slacks, pristine white shirt and polished shoes. He’d gotten a haircut and the beard was gone.
“You’re looking good,” I said. “Has your situation improved?”
“Oh, yeah. Never felt better in my life.”
“Did you find a place to relocate the bar?”
“The bar? That was yesterday; I wouldn’t peddle that poison today. I’ve got a lifetime of brand-new tomorrows now.”
That didn’t sound like Corey at all. “What gives?” I asked in alarm.
He beamed at me radiantly. “I was completely, totally wrong about the Church of Synchronicity.”
I waited to hear more, but his phone beeped a reminder. “Oops, gotta run. I’ve got a mind-melding class, and then it’s my turn to clean the kennels.”