Our house has an idiosyncratic feature that we forget about most of the time. It’s a small observation deck some forty feet off the ground, accessed by stairs from the second floor terrace. A pretty cool space, but the somewhat steep wooden steps are often slick with humidity and the deck is open to the sky, which means there is no shade in the brutal summer sun. But with last night’s foggy full moon, rumbles of fireworks beyond our woods in all directions, it was mysterious and wonderful. The photo I shot from the top deck shows our old van in the portecochere below and the full moon trying to break free of the fog.
Traditional fireworks displays in Florida communities were canceled due to Covid-19, but the Florida legislature legalized fireworks purchases for individuals for certain holidays, including the 4th of July, so — if you’ll excuse the expression — sales skyrocketed.
Last night the war zone sounds went on for hours, long after Buck, Lou Lou Belle and I had carefully descended from our high perch and retired to the bedroom to read and nibble dark chocolate. No chocolate for Lou, of course, but she lay at the foot of the bed and snored. There had been a loud thunderstorm late in the afternoon. She paced around and whimpered a little at those sounds, but the fireworks and intermittent pistol shots didn’t bother her at all, even with the sliding glass door open to the night with all its sounds.
Maybe Lou understands that humans who have been cooped up so long just needed to let their wolf loose for a night.
For the record.
Pensacola Beach, Florida
Well, now, ain’t love grand. When Bo Perlis chuckled, a nasty sound came out of his mouth, gritty like old coffee grounds. He didn’t sound amused. He leaned against the pilings of a fishing dock, boots anchored in sugar white sand. Perlis lit one cigarette from the butt of another, and occasionally lifted a small pair of Leica bird-watching binoculars in Grace’s direction for a closer look. He had caught her and his Honor’s conversation thanks to a small deer hunter’s “bionic ear.”
Perlis picked his teeth with a mother-of-pearl toothpick he got off a high-roller he knifed in a Las Vegas storm drain under the Luxor Casino. Bo liked souvenirs, and this was one of his favorites. He remembered that fat sucker, how his red-veined blue eyes bulged with surprise as he watched his own bright arterial blood pump and spurt.
Bo spat, remembering how he jumped out of the way to keep from getting blood on this boots. Jesus Christ, I’ve had some good times. Who else gets to do this kind of stuff and get paid for it, too?
He stashed the toothpick in his pocket, and brought his hand-held video camera up and zoomed in on Grace and the Mayor at a picnic table a hundred feet away. Damn, she’s hot. He zoomed in to get a better look at the girl’s long legs. Perlis felt a familiar swelling begin in his tight Levi’s. Down, boy. Patience. Got to save this sweet thing for later.
Bo watched them earlier when they walked on the beach. Couldn’t keep their hands off each other. But now, the couple’s mood had changed from play to argument. He kept on filming and angled the bionic ear microphone to try to pick up their conversation. It was windy, though, and he could only get snippets. Clearly, the Mayor was angry. Perlis saw him jump up from the bench, practically assault the woman, and high-tail it down the beach.
He continued to watch Grace until she got up from the table and half-walked, half-ran back toward the parking lot.
Shit. I hate the damned beach. Perlis left the pier and stepped as lightly as he could back to the asphalt parking area, trying to avoid getting sand in his boots.
He pulled in a few cars behind Grace’s red pick-up truck and followed her back across the bridge. He broke off when she turned into the gated entrance at Balconies on the Bay, punched the key pad and disappeared from sight.
Perlis drove on a few blocks, and then pulled into the busy parking lot at Sam’s Seafood. He found an open space at the back of the lot beside a scraggly looking scrub oak tree. His nondescript rental car looked like half the other vehicles in the lot. By now, it was fully dark and right in the middle of the restaurant’s dinner hour. Perlis lowered his window, turned off the ignition and flicked a cigarette butt onto the pavement. He pulled out his cell phone and punched in the one number he had on speed dial.
“Report.” The voice creeped Bo out every time he heard it. It was sultry and breathy like a Marilyn Monroe clone. The client used some kind of voice changer software. Bo suspected the client was actually male, but there was no way he could know for sure.
“I found the girl.”
“And?” Damn, that come-hither voice was distracting.
“Nothing suspicious. Acts like any young kid on their first job. Spent the day at the beach participating in a community hurricane drill; then made out on the beach with the town Mayor, got into an argument with him; he left; she drove back to her condo. End of story.”
“Did you say ‘mayor’?”
“Yeah. He looks like a kid, too. Must be the youngest mayor in America.”
“And the argument?”
“Don’t know for sure. Something about her job. It’s real windy out on the beach and I didn’t catch every word.”
“Her phones?” The real voice might have a slight southern accent, but Perlis couldn’t place the region.
“Got her land line at the condo. The place is on the market for sale. The woman is a glorified house-sitter. A realtor gave me a nice little tour of the place. I came back later and got the phone and placed a couple of cameras around.”
“Just remember you’re there for information, not for fun. What about her cell phone?”
“No luck yet with her cell.”
“Not a matter of luck, Mr. Perlis. Skill. The cell phone is critical. Nobody under thirty uses a land line anymore. I was told you could do this. Do not disappointment me. Get it done and report back tomorrow.”
That was the longest speech Bo had heard from his client so far, not that he was crazy about the content. “Will do,” he said.
Goodnight, Marilyn. Jeez, that’s weird. Bo put the phone back in his shirt pocket and reached under the seat for the pint bottle of Early Times he kept there. He took a long pull, recapped it, lit up another smoke and drove away from Sam’s in search of a drive-through double cheeseburger and fries. Bo hated any type of seafood: fried, stewed or nude.
For the record
Pensacola Beach, Florida
Grace hesitated. She knew she had entered a danger zone. A better person would meet the conflict head on. The setting sun made streaky patterns across the sky and into the water.
She stood, slung her backpack over her shoulder and grinned at Jess. “Race you to the water.”
Jess laughed like a little boy and took off after her.
They walked and talked about the hurricane drill.
“Are you really concerned there might be a big one this year?” Grace asked.
“I’m always concerned, but I’ve been studying all the models, and this new tropical storm, Bart, has my attention. It’s early in the season for a big storm, and usually you’d think the water is still too cool for a bad one, but this year we hardly had any winter at all, and the spring so far has been hotter than normal, too. Have you ever been in a hurricane?”
“Sure. I grew up in central Florida, but we were a hundred miles inland, so wind and rain were a problem, but we never worried about storm surge, thank goodness. I can’t imagine being on this barrier island during a major hurricane.”
“Well, that’s why we have these drills every year.”
Something caught Jess’s eye out in the water, and he pointed. “Look, Grace, dolphins.”
“Oh, my God, they’re beautiful.” Grace watched the dip and sway of the sleek gray mammals. She moved closer to Jess and whispered. “Where do they go when a hurricane comes?”
Jess angled his body slightly to protect Grace from the cool breeze that had begun to kick up. “In some ways, they’re luckier than people. Bottle-nosed dolphins are incredibly smart. They have keen senses that tell them when barometric pressure changes so they’ll know a storm is coming. That’s when they close ranks, swim closer than usual in their pods and head out to sea. They’ll stay there until the storm passes.
“Every now and then a mother and her baby will get stranded in shallow water, but that’s rare. They’re smart and intuitive. We could learn a lot from them. I’ve been watching them and swimming with them in the Gulf since I was a kid, but it still gives me a thrill to see them.”
The soft, silvery light that comes during a certain time just between sunset and twilight lit Jess’s face. It’s not harsh or metallic, more like liquid mercury. He solemnly observed the dolphins breach the waves and disappear from sigh. Grace watched Jess. Her breath caught in her throat. How can you be afraid to lose something you don’t have?
“Jess?” The breeze ruffled his dark hair. Rays of the sinking sun shot sparks close to the water’s surface, spraying out in all directions. They stood together, their widened pupils quivering in wordless communication. Grace took a deep breath. “We need to talk.”
“Yes, we surely do.” Jess gently took her chin in his hand and bent his head toward her mouth. Impulsively, her mouth lifted toward his.
They were suspended in time for only about twenty seconds of real time, but it was one of those forever moments when synapses fire rockets and light up emotion centers in two persons’ brains, instantly creating irrevocable neural pathways between them. It has been called a coup du foudre, literally, a “thunderbolt.” Most of us have heard of it as “love at first sight.” When it happens, the couple is instantaneously transported into a deep chasm of brilliant colors and deafening sounds. They fall as two separate people, but emerge shaken to their core and melted as though by a metallurgical process into one. Neither knows at that moment that they have been lucky enough or cursed enough to fall in love at first sight.
Grace twined her arms around Jess’s neck and the tender kiss that began with a soft pressing of lips warmed to a simmer and then boiled over. Jess pulled back for a moment, put both of his hands on either side of Grace’s face, looked deeply into her eyes and kissed her again. When his tongue lightly moved over her lips, she moaned softly and opened her mouth to welcome this unexpected intimacy. She moved her hands down to the small of his back and pulled him closer. Jess moved his hands to Grace’s waist, his arousal unavoidably apparent. That seemed to cause them both to remember they were standing on a public beach at dusk. They pulled out of the clinch. Looked hotly at each other and fought to regain control over their ragged breathing.
Jess pursed his lips in a low whistle. “Wow.”
“I’ll say. Where did that come from? We must both need to get out more often.” They laughed.
The Grace stepped out of the embrace, her countenance clouded by anxiety. She gave Jess a bleak look. It was time.
“Hey, what’s wrong, Grace? You went from happy to sad in ten seconds flat.”
“Can we walk, Jess?”
“Sure, let’s head toward the pier. What’s up?”
“Well, it’s just that you don’t know anything about me, Jess. You might not like me at all when you learn why I came to Pensacola.”
“Hush,” Jess said, placing his right index finger on her lips. “Look, I’m almost thirty years old. I’m not a kid. I know we don’t know much about each other yet. What I do know is that there is something unusual happening here. Whatever you’re worried about, we can work it out. Trust me?”
“I’m inclined to, Jess, but . . .”
“Okay, then. I get to go first. Then we’ll stop in a Evangeline’s for a drink, then you can tell me about yourself, and we’ll walk back to our vehicles and head back to town. How’s that for an itinerary?”
Grace caved. “I can see how you got yourself elected mayor. Okay, we’ll do it your way. Just don’t blame me later.”
Jess laughed. “How bad can it be? Good. Now that’s settled, I get to talk about me.” He laughed like a child anticipating show and tell day at school. “I was born on a dark and stormy night . . .”
“Silly,” Grace smiled.
“Yes, that I am,” Jess said, taking her by the hand. “Let’s walk.”
“Have you lived here your whole life?” Grace asked.
“Yes, the whole Harper clan is here, including my grandparents. My granddad’s father was a native, too, and his great-grandfather emigrated here from Ireland.”
“Gosh, I can’t imagine having a family with roots like that,” Grace said. “Oh, I meant to ask you if serving as mayor is a full-time job.”
“No, it’s not. I’m a community banker full-time. I run the Trust Department for First Community Bank and Trust downtown. It’s my Uncle Marty’s bank, and it was founded by my grandfather.”
“I guess you have brothers and sisters, too?” Graced watched stolid sea gulls and petite sanderlings pick their way through shells on the sand, occasionally darting with their long beaks to snatch up an edible tidbit. Thousands of pastel coquinas washed in on the white sand with each wave.
Jess raised his chin and ran a hand through his hair. “Sure do. My brother, Grant, is a couple years older than me. He used to be an FBI agent in New York, but missed home, the beach, and the south generally, and came back and started his own private investigations firm a couple of years ago.”
“Oh, yes.” Jess smiled and rolled his eyes. “The twins.”
“Twins!” Grace said. “How cool. I’m an only child, and adopted to boot, so the whole idea of siblings is very exotic. How old are they? Are they identical?”
“Kate and Belle just turned twelve. And yes, much to the confusion of everyone, they are identical.”
“They’re a lot younger than you and Grant.”
“Yep. They’re our half-sisters.” Jess stopped walking and touched his right hand to Grace’s left shoulder. “Look there.” He pointed with his left hand. “See the ghost crabs?”
Grace bent down to get a better look. The diminutive crabs were nearly transparent. Their eyes poked out on skinny stems. They really did look ghostly, especially washing in the pearly twilight, scuttling along at water’s edge.
“Oh my God, Jess, look at the sunset. The water looks like a bed of diamonds.” They stood side by side watching the show. Every step down this road is making it harder to tell him. Maybe I’ll just quit my job.
“How old were you when your parents were divorced?” Grace asked.
Jess hunkered down in the sand. He picked up several large pieces of broken shells and began to chunk them into the water. “They didn’t get a divorce.”
“But . . .” Grace started to say, but stopped when she saw the pained look on Jess’s face. Without even thinking, Grace reached out and put her hands on his shoulders. “Oh, Jess, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so insensitive.” She squeezed his shoulders, then moved her hands and stepped to the side, feeling suddenly clumsy.
Jess stood up, dusted the damp sand from his hands and looked at Grace. His eyes were wide open, the pupils large. He held her gaze for a long moment, his mouth tight. Then, he took a deep breath and smiled a hurt smile that made him look like a vulnerable young boy. He spoke quietly. “It’s okay. It happened a long time ago.”
Jess took her hand and they walked along in silence for several minutes. Lights were coming up at homes and businesses all along the shoreline. Families and couples of all ages walked, sat in beach chairs, or jogged. They passed one family with the young-looking mom and dad spreading out a blanket and beginning to unpack a picnic basket while their two young children sat nearby and filled small pails with sand. The kids screamed with delight when a wave washed up to bathe their pudgy legs and fill the newly dug holes with salty water.
“My mother’s name was Kate – Katherine Powell Harper. Nobody even knew she was sick until it was too late. Ovarian cancer.”
“I’m so sorry, Jess. How old were you?”
“Fifteen.” They kept on walking. Jess squeezed Grace’s hand, then dropped it and pointed toward a small restaurant up ahead. Tiny white lights strung around an outdoor deck and up into palm trees flanking it twinkled in the approaching darkness. A ruby-toned neon sign flashed: Evangeline’s Beach Shack.
Jess flashed a bright, pain-free smile at Grace. “Evangeline’s makes the best margaritas on the beach. Sound good?”
“Sure does. This is shaping up to be the law school graduation party I never had.”
“Great. Then it will be my turn to quiz you about who you are. Maybe I’ll even find out what genie in a bottle sent you my way.”
Grace still felt uneasy and dishonest about leading Jess on, but went with the flow and switched emotional channels along with Jess.
“Hey, isn’t Evangeline your step-mom?”
“Yes, and more than that. She’s got a great heart. She saved our family’s life, especially my dad’s. I honestly don’t know what would have happened to us without her. People come into your life for a reason, Grace. You just have to trust it.”
The outside deck was filled with a combination of locals and tourists. Jess took Grace’s hand again. “Come on. Let’s sit at the bar. Okay with you?”
“I think it’s the best seat in the house,” he said. “Great for people watching.”
Two bright-eyed, black-haired, olive-skinned young girls yelled out, “Jess!” and came toward them at a dead run, nearly colliding with a serving carrying a large tray of empty margarita glasses from the deck. They wrapped long arms around him and then noticed Grace. They tilted their heads in the crazy-making identical twin way, and started to giggle. “I’m Belle,” said one. “And I’m Kate,” said the other. Their mischievous dark brown eyes fixed on her as they blurted out in unison: “Are you our brother’s new girlfriend?”
Grace was fascinated. The girls looked just alike, but the one who identified herself as Belle had long straight hair, dangly plastic earrings made to look like a rainbow, and was dressed in a pomegranate-colored tank dress. Very girly. Kate, on the other hand, was dressed in khaki safari-style Bermuda shorts with a matching short-sleeve jacket with shoulder epaulets. She wore ankle-top hiking boots. Her hair was chin length and curly. She had a camera and a small pair of binoculars strapped crosswise across her chest.
Grace felt tongue-tied. Evangeline strode toward them and rescued her with a big smile. “Kate! Belle! Mind your manners.” She extended lovely, long tapered fingers to Grace. “I saw you with Jess at the drill today. I’m so glad he brought you to see us. Follow me. There’s space at the bar. Come get settled and then we’ll talk.”
Grace watched as Kate and Belle each grabbed hold of Jess’s hands. He pretended to resist as they dragged him toward the bar. He grinned over his shoulder at Grace, mock-helpless.
“Homework time, girls,” Evangeline said. “Run along, now, and leave Jess and his guest alone.”
Jess and Grace settled onto cherry wood bar stools with leather seats and backs and shiny brass foot rings. Evangeline instructed the bartender to make two margaritas.
Evangeline pulled up a stool beside Grace. “Sorry to be in such a rush around here. Let’s start again.” She took Grace’s hand and patted it. “I’m Evangeline Harper, Jess’s step-mom and friend. Welcome to my funky beach shack. Please call me Evie.”
“Thank you, Evie. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Grace Ann Ringer. I just moved here from central Florida – a small town called Brandon. This whole day has been very unusual, to say the least. The twins are adorable.”
Evie laughed. “Those two are a mess. They keep me on my toes. Sometimes they’re too smart for my own good. They think their big brothers are their own personal property. Grant’s married, but since Jess is single, Kate and Belle are endlessly fascinated by any female he shows up with.”
Grace cut her eyes around at Jess, but the Mayor was studying the menu with great concentration. “Hey, chere,” Evangeline put her hand lightly on Grace’s arm, and spoke in a low voice, “If you think Jess is good-looking, wait ‘til you see his father. Whoa, that man is ooh la la.”
“Evie, cut it out. You’ll scare Grace away,” Jess said.
“Oh, shoot, I’m just having a little fun.”
“I don’t mind,” Grace said, smiling at Evie.
Evie glanced at her watch. “In fact, I’m about to take the girls and head home to meet Ryan for dinner. He should be finishing rounds at the hospital about now.”
“Jess told me Dr. Ryan is an orthopedic surgeon.”
“Yes, and he won’t leave that hospital until he’s seen every one of his patients”. Her eyes glimmered. “Good man. Good, good man.” She jerked her head toward Jess, leaned in to Grace and said quietly, “Him, too.”
Grace didn’t know what to say. This kind of open emotionality was totally outside of anything she had ever experienced.
Evie threw one arm over her shoulder and the other over Jess’s. “Okay, kids, I’ve got to run. Order yourselves something if you’re hungry.” She took Grace’s face in her hands. “Come again, soon, okay?”
“Thanks, Evie. I’d love to.”
Evie was already calling for the twins. “Bell! Kate! Get it in gear, now, your dad will be waiting for us at home.”
And with that, Evie blew right out of there like some benign tropical storm, throwing kisses and smiles to her regular customers along the way. Kate and Belle danced behind her as though they were following the Pied Piper.
Grace suddenly felt exhausted. “Whew!” she said. “What a whirlwind day this has been.”
“Yes, and I know just the medicine for this kind of a day.” Bobby the bartender handed her an icy, pale green margarita in a wide-mouthed, stemmed glass. A wedge of juicy-looking lime was balanced on the edge.
Jess picked up his and proposed a toast: “To the best hurricane drill ever!”
“I’ll drink to that.” They clinked glasses.
“Hope you don’t mind,” Jess said, “but while you and Evie were talking, I went ahead and ordered us a small West Indies salad to share. It’s a specialty of the house. If we’re still hungry after that, we’ll get another one.
“I’m still stuffed from that feast we had a little while ago, but I have to admit, that sounds scrumptious, Jess. Thank you.” A basket of warm, toasted garlic bread slices arrived just then, followed by the chilled crab salad served on a bed of shredded lettuce in a white, shell-shaped dish. “That looks amazing,” Grace said. “About the only seafood I’ve eaten in the last three years of law school at Chapel Hill has been tuna salad.”
“So, Grace Ann Ringer, enough about me,” Jess joked, “who are you, little lady, and what are you doin’ in my town? Tell me what I want to know, or you’ll be out on the range with the coyotes and no horse tonight.”
Grace held up her hands. She smiled, but her eyes were solemn. “Okay, Mr. Mayor, no need for threats. I’ll tell you anything you want to know. It’s awfully noisy in here, though. Can we get a to-go coffee when we’ve finished our salads and find a picnic table down the beach on the way back to the parking lot?”
“Good idea. I know just the place.”
After dinner, Grace and Jess took their coffees and walked down to the water’s edge. They walked north along the shoreline until they reached the public fishing pier. Wood bench seats were built in the whole length of the pier, but they were crowded with people fishing, families playing and tourists hanging out. Jess spotted an empty picnic table a few more feet down the beach.
“Let’s grab that table before somebody else has the same idea.”
They jogged over and sat on benches facing each other.
Any pretense at merriment had gone from Grace’s face, and the one margarita she had drunk wasn’t enough to make her forget what she had to say to Jess.
He picked up on her mood immediately. “What’s worrying you?”
She removed the plastic top from her coffee, and took a tentative sip and looked Jess in the eye. “It’s my job.”
“Your job? Aren’t you a lawyer?”
“Yes, in fact this is my first job since I graduated last month.”
“That sure doesn’t sound like a problem.”
“You don’t understand,” Grace said.
“Okay. Explain it to me.” Jess put his coffee down and leaned toward her with his forearms resting on the table.
“The first file on my desk at Brautigan, Hansen, and Lee is to work on securing all the permissions for the new town planned for 30,000 acres in the mid-county.”
“What?” Jess stood up. He went from relaxed to agitated in ten seconds.
“Jess, please. Sit down. There’s more.”
“I don’t think I need to hear any more. Look, I’m sorry, but tonight was a mistake. We shouldn’t even be talking. It’s a conflict of interest.”
“Please. At least let me finish.”
Jess sat back down and crossed his arms over his chest. “You’ve got one minute. Talk.”
“The most important part of my job initially is to persuade Tom and Sally Harper, um, your grandparents, to grant the county a right-of-way easement through their property so that West Sutter road can be straightened out and extended to link to the new town site and a new interstate highway ramp to make an east-west corridor for hurricane evacuation.”
“Is that why you came out here today? Did they send you to try and soften me up?”
Jess was on his feet again. His face was flushed with anger and his eyes had turned cobalt as the Gulf in winter. “Hurricane evacuations, my ass. That’s the way Barrows and his boys sold it to the county. I feel like a damn fool, rolling out the welcome wagon for the developers’ bird dog.” He spat the words out like bitter herbs and swung one leg over the bench as if to leave.
“Wait,” Grace pleaded. “Can’t we talk about this?”
Jess swung the other leg over and stood up. He folded his arms over his chest and glowered down at Grace. “We’ll talk about it, all right. We’ll talk about it when my grandparents sue the pants off the county and those vulture developers. Should give you plenty of job security down at that Skin-ums and Cheat-ums law firm you hooked up with.”
“Damn it, Jess, that’s not fair.” Grace stood up, tripped on her own foot, and fell into him.
Jess caught her, held her stiffly at arm’s length, then pulled her to him hard, bent down and kissed her roughly. She twisted and pulled away at first, then kissed him right back. Jess broke it off and shook his head. “Damn!”
He spun around and stalked off back up the beach toward the parking lot, leaving Grace stunned. This was worse than she thought it would be.
She thought about running after Jess. She even moved a step in the direction he was fleeing her.
Then she stopped, put her hands on her hips and just stood there watching the angry man walking away from her. Suddenly she was angry, too. Of all the arrogant, obstinate jerks. She blew air out of her cheeks. Forget him. I’ve got a job to do, and by God, I’m going to do it.
Grace sat back down to finish her coffee and pretend to enjoy the dregs of the sunset. And to be sure Jess was gone by the time she got back to the parking lot.
Grace picked up the pace as she walked back to her truck from the beach picnic table. The last rays of the sunset were gone, and it was almost dark. There were still a lot of people out walking or having beach blanket suppers.
She walked close to the water. The hard-packed sand felt good to her bare feet. She began to jog and then broke out into a wind sprint. She ran until her breath came in huge gasps. Laugh or cry? Laugh or cry? Laugh or cry? Grace felt so worked up, she wasn’t sure what would come out of her mouth.
Laugh! She bent over double laughing, still breathing hard from the exertion. Oh, boy, you showed yourself for a small town girl, today! Way to go, Grace Ann. Kiss the Mayor and make him – mad! I guess P. J.’s my sworn enemy now, too. Oh, well.
Grace threw her head back and laughed some more. She never saw the sallow, skinny man wearing baggy jeans and a Red Man cap watching her from the nearby pier.
So masks were difficult to find in the early days. Thank goodness for our local Buddhist community who went to work sewing beautiful, useful face cloths. Now, of course, they are widely available and even more widely argued about. When or whether? Helpful, useless, or possibly even harmful? Cloth vs. paper. Whatever you do, don’t touch your face.
Then there is the learning curve. I saw a woman speaking at a local county commission meeting — one of the first in-person but socially distanced masks-optional ones we have had since the phased re-opening started. She sat in the audience, mask in place. But when she walked to the podium to speak her mind, she removed the mask. At first, she held it gingerly in her left hand, letting it dangle by one of the ear-holds. But as she grew increasingly agitated during her allotted three minutes, she began to ball the mask up in her fist, gesticulating with both hands, voice rising. At last, spleen fully vented, she returned to her seat and reapplied the mask to her face.
Watching a re-run of the meeting video from home, I shook my head and sighed.
Like many folks, Buck and I are assembling a small collection of masks, from an ancient N-95 that was still in its original packaging and had been languishing in his tool shed for years, and a package of the ubiquitous pale blue paper surgical ones, to ones you pull over your head and pull up to cover your nose and mouth. My current favorite is a cloth one made by two local women. It’s bright yellow with navy blue squiggles. But the ones I’ve ordered for both of us may (I hope) be the best yet. They are cloth, with a vinyl window over the mouth area, and were originally designed to help hearing-impaired folks – like Buck – as they augment their hearing aids by reading lips. Fantastic adaptation, and I like the idea that our smiles won’t be hidden in the grocery store or other public places.
We are still spending most of our time at home, but that is really not much of a change for us. We are both fit and healthy, but in the older cohort for whom catching the virus could mean more than a bad day at the beach.
So we’ve made some other adaptations, too, including deliveries of frozen wild salmon and white fish from Wild Alaskan. We signed up for an every-other-month delivery, but I am finding we’re eating a lot more fish and loving it, so I keep bumping up the shipping date so that now, on our third box, we’re getting a delivery about every six weeks. This is something we’ll continue, Covid or no Covid. Same for deliveries of frozen chicken directly from Purdue Farms. The first box was a terrible disappointment, because the dry ice was completely melted and so was all the chicken. I hated the waste, but can’t fault the company. They were dealing with huge issues in trying to get their product to customers in pristine condition despite hiccoughs in the shipping chain and delivery timelines. Purdue Farms’ customer service was fantastic. They offered me a refund or a new order. I took the new order, and it arrived with extra insulation and dry ice in perfect condition. Most of the order was free range and organic, packaged in convenient serving sizes. It’s great. So far, we’ve made a teriyaki-style stir-fry from a package of boneless chicken thighs, fajitas from chicken tenders, and lemon-herb marinated boneless chicken breasts cooked on an indoor grill pan (photos below).
Earlier today I was deep in the mine-shaft of memory and ancient blog posts, looking for one thing but finding ten others, when this one-sentence post from 2010 stopped me in my hunt.
Even when you have picked over the family bones for every scrap of meat, every scent like a starving hound, something in the marrow waits to tell you more.
For the record
Mary Alice Berringer sat with her friend, Aileen Smathers, on the porch of The Nutmeg Bakery Café in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. It was the first week of May, perfect weather to enjoy outdoor dining before the crush of Florida people hit the pretty valley seeking relief from hot summer temperatures.
Aileen and Mary Alice had been friends almost their whole lives, and now they were enduring widowhood together, too. It had never mattered that Mary Alice had co-founded Berringer Software Company with her late husband, Troy, and one of the richest women in North Carolina, and Aileen hadn’t worked outside her and her husband’s modest home since their children were born.
Physically, they couldn’t be more different, either. The white-haired Aileen was a quintessential “mama” type, medium height and huggably soft. Her figure suggested she was a fine home cook who enjoyed tasting her own cooking. Mary Alice was more like a stork, tall, all angles and planes, her hair chemically maintained in the natural copper red shade of her youth. Despite her usual command presence, Mary Alice’s vibrant personality normally became girlish and totally spontaneous anytime she was with Aileen.
“Oh, my, don’t that look good,” Aileen said as a nice-looking young man sat a Waldorf chicken salad with fresh fruit and poppy seed bread on the table in front of her.
“I’m sure it is,” Mary Alice murmured as she picked at a fillet of perfectly seared tuna on spring greens. She put her fork back down, sighed, patted her mouth with her napkin, and took a sip of iced tea.
Aileen’s wise eyes knew what the trouble was. She lost her husband more than five years ago, but for Mary Alice, the loss was fresh and still an open wound.
Mary Alice looked up to see Aileen’s eyes on her, and tried to smile but her eyes filled with tears. Aileen’s hand reached out across the table to grasp Mary Alice’s.
“I’m sorry, Aileen. I thought I was ready. Guess I’m not.”
“You just take all the time you need, honey. Would you like to leave?”
Mary Alice squeezed Aileen’s hand, then let go, twisted her neck around like an athlete, took in a deep breath and exhaled, then picked up her fork.
“Hell, no, Aileen, Troy would be embarrassed to see me acting like some little school girl. Let’s eat this good food.”
Aileen chuckled. “Well, in that case, I’m havin’ a big old piece of that coconut pie I saw in the case when we came in.”
“It’s been so long since I’ve eaten a dessert, Aileen, my system would problem go into shock. But you have that pie, and I’ll at least have a cup of that fancy coffee The Nutmeg’s so proud of.”
“Atta girl,” Aileen said.
Troy Llewellyn Berringer died in a bizarre car crash on a narrow mountain road six months earlier. He had just turned 70 years old. The years of mountain hiking, running a business with the love of his life, Mary Ann, and a commitment to diet and exercise kept Troy looking and feeling at least ten years younger. Same for Mary Ann, who, at 68, looked no older than mid-fifties.
They had been seriously thinking about selling the business and their home and becoming world-travelling nomads for a while.
“Why not?” Troy had said. We’re fit. We feel great. We’re sure as hell not ready for the porch and slippers routine.”
Their doctors told them that they were likely to live past one hundred, given the pristine state of their blood work and lifestyle. They laughed together about that and decided maybe it was time to sell the business and go play, especially since they didn’t have any heirs.
Well, there was Mary Alice’s nephew, Rory, and he wanted in the worst way to inherit the business from them, but neither Troy nor Mary Alice could quite see their high tech baby in Rory’s rough hands. And since their only daughter disappeared 25 years earlier, they felt like they would rather sell it to a well-managed corporation who would continue to run the business responsibly and retain their long-time employees. Either that or offer the employees a chance to buy themselves out.
The day of the accident, Troy called Mary Alice from his Rotary Club meeting in Waynesville to ask her to meet him at Patrick Condon’s office at 1:30 that afternoon. Pat was in his mid-nineties, but still came into the office almost every day to make sure the legal interests of his long-time clients like Berringer Software were taken care of.
Mary Alice remembered how excited Troy was when he called. “Hey, woman, you’ve got to meet me over at Pat’s office today at 1:30. He’s got the papers on an offer from a buyer for the business!”
“Really?” Mary Ann said. “Wow! How is this happening so fast? We haven’t even looked for a buyer.”
“I know, I know, but apparently somebody whispered in somebody else’s ear and Pat got a call. Can you be there?”
“Sure, Troy. You won’t have time to come back to the office first so we can go together?”
“Wish I could, sugar. I got a call from somebody I need to see between Rotary and Pat. Probably nothing, but I got to go.”
Mary Ann felt a familiar pain. Even after 25 years, every month or so they would get a call or letter from somebody saying they knew where Ann Mathis Berringer, their missing daughter, was. Sometimes the person making the contact was genuinely trying to be helpful, even though they were always mistaken, but most of the time it was some scurrilous scam artist out to make a buck on their suffering and loss. Either way, though, Troy would go to the ends of the earth to find the tiniest clue that might lead them to their daughter.
“Of course, my love. I understand. I’ll see you at Pat’s at 1:30.
And that’s the last time she ever heard her dear Troy’s voice.
“Mary Alice, where’d you go? Earth to Mary Alice.”
“Oh, Aileen! I’m sorry. I swear, it doesn’t take anything for me to drift off into a cloud of memory. I guess you’ve been there, too?”
“I sure have, darlin’. And to tell you the truth, sometimes I wish one of them clouds of mem’ry would just take me right on up to heaven so I could be with Jack again.”
Going on without Troy is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, Aileen. At least you have your girls and the grandchildren. Does that help at all?”
“Oh sure, and I’m thankful for them. Don’t know what I’d do without them. Still, when it comes time to shut the lights and turn back the covers, there’s no hand to pat mine and tell me, ‘Sweet dreams, Aileen.’”
The two old friends sat and looked at one another. Finally, Mary Alice said, “Yes, well, I sure do need Troy’s wisdom right now to know how to handle selling the business and how to handle Rory. It’s delicate. He’s been a little too helpful ever since Troy died. Feels like he’s trying to take me over, and the business, too.”
“I haven’t seen Rory in a long time. How old is he now?”
“He turned 50 last month.”
“Fifty! I can’t believe it. Did he ever get married?”
“No, he never did.”
“I don’t guess he’s likely to have any young ‘uns at this stage, then.”
Mary Alice chuckled. “No, I can’t imagine Rory being a daddy. He’s like a kid himself, in a lot of ways. More interested in his toys than other people. He tries to keep it quiet, but I know he’s a regular over at Cherokee, and he goes down to Biloxi frequently, and even Las Vegas several times a year.”
Aileen leaned forward and whispered. “He gambles?”
“Oh, yes. And that’s not all.”
Mary Alice signaled the server for the check. “He’s sneaky, Aileen. I shouldn’t be talking like this about family, but to tell you the truth, in my heart you’re the closest thing I’ve got to family, now, and I just have to tell somebody.”
“My word, Mary Alice, what is it?”
Mary Alice signed the check and waited until the server was out of earshot. “He’s pressuring me to make him CEO and give him 50% ownership of the company. He wants me to retire and let him run all the day-to-day operations of the business. Says I’ve ‘earned’ it.”
“Well, you have. That’s true.”
“That may be. But I don’t trust my nephew not to raid the company to pay for his fun, and run the business into the ground. I’m not going to stand by and watch that happen. I’d much rather sell the business to a reputable buyer like Troy and I planned; someone who will keep our employees and continue to grow the business.”
“Does Rory own any of the stock now?”
“No. Troy never felt comfortable with selling or giving away any of our stock. Rory’s always been on a salary with full benefits and a bonus schedule.”
“Does he do good work?”
“Well, okay,” Mary Alice sighed and reached for her purse, “but the hard truth is, if he wasn’t my late sister’s son, we would have run him off years ago. His job I more of a “make work” position than a necessary part of our operations.” She scraped her chair back and stood up. So did Aileen. “I need to get back to the office.”
The friends walked out to the gravel parking lot. They were parked side by side under a spreading oak tree. “I’m so sorry you’re having this trouble,” Aileen said.
Mary Alice smiled and hugged her. “This, too, shall pass. Thanks for listing. I promise to be more cheerful next time.”
“You call me if there’s anything I can do.”
“Will do. Say hi to those girls for me.”
“I surely will. And let’s get together again soon.”