for the record
As soon as Grace disappeared from sight, Claire walked slowly back into the house, locked the door and threw the dead bolt. Thank God she’s gone. If Grace knew the truth, she would want to stand and fight. But I never said a word. Claire lit a cigarette and drew the smoke in with a shaky breath. Then she looked around the living room as if she had an audience and shouted, “Hear that, you bastard! I never said a word.”
She walked through the living room and down the short hall to Grace’s sunny yellow bedroom. It exuded her personality. The rest of the house was completely anonymous. On purpose. Grace had never known about her efforts to hide in plain sight. Not that it mattered anymore. She had been found ten years ago. Her efforts to be invisible all these years had failed.
Claire sat down on Grace’s neatly made bed and put her face in her hands. Her cell phone chirped. Claire fished it out of her jeans pocket. Grace. She’s barely been gone a half hour.
After their brief conversation, Claire stood up and smoothed the covers on Grace’s bed, then went back to her own bedroom. She didn’t pull back the covers, just lay down on her back and fell into a deep sleep, even though it was nearly mid-morning. She barely slept a wink the night before, fretting about everything.
Claire slept straight through until dark, when she awoke with a start and grabbed for the cell phone on her bedside table. There was a message from Grace. “Hi Mom, it’s me. Just wanted to let you know I got here safe and sound. I’m at the apartment and in for the night. Talk to you later. Love you. Bye.”
Claire showered, dressed for work, and microwaved a frozen dinner, which she washed down with hot coffee. She didn’t mind working the graveyard shift in the neonatal intensive care unit at Brandon Hospital. Nurse burn-out rate was high. Happy outcomes for the high-risk infants there were not assured, and it was considered a tough place to work. Not for Claire, though. She had been on the unit twenty years, ever since she arrived in Brandon as a young nurse with a toddler of her own. She understood more than most that once you’re born, it’s too late. Life itself is a high risk proposition.
The NICU unit was Claire’s home. Her work there felt like a calling, a duty, maybe even a penance. She had spent many nights just like this one, where even with all the high-tech equipment, the low-tech remedy of holding a premature, sick infant in your arms in a rocking chair and humming “Hush Little Baby” was still the best medicine in the world.
Claire left her station shortly after 11 for a quick break. She was in the nurse’s lounge with hot coffee and a cinnamon roll when her cell phone chirped to alert her to an incoming text message. “Love u. Wish u were here.” Claire pushed #1 to speed dial Grace’s cell.
“You won’t believe this, Mom. I am sitting out on the balcony of the condo watching a full moon over Escambia Bay. I can see three beautiful sailboats and a huge shrimp trawler that looks like something out of another century. It’s incredible.” Claire had never heard her daughter talk so fast.
“It sounds amazing. Did you get some supper?”
“Sure did. I picked up a frozen veggie pizza at Publix. There’s a little round glass-top patio table and a couple of chairs out here, so I sat in one, propped my feet in the other, and enjoyed my dinner while I watched pelicans dive-bombing the bay for their dinner.”
“That’s wonderful, Grace. You’ve earned it. Makes me happy to know you’re happy. Enjoy the rest of your weekend before you start work Monday.”
“I will, Mom.”
“Well, time’s up. I’ve got to get back to work..”
“Okay, Mom. Hope the rest of your shift goes well.”
“Thanks, honey. Oh, and Grace?”
“Don’t forget to keep an eye out for strangers.”
“Well, Mom,” Grace laughed, “that’ll be pretty hard to do. Everybody here is a stranger to me right now.”
“You know what I mean. There are friends you haven’t met yet, and then there are strangers.”
“I know, Mom. Don’t worry. You raised me right. Besides, I’ve been pretty much on my own for quite a while, now, and I’m not a kid anymore. I’m always careful.”
“Twenty-four years old and a lawyer. You really are almost a fully-grown bear, aren’t you?”
“I’m glad we could talk, Grace. Sets my mind at ease, for now anyway. Love you, baby girl. Talk to you soon.”
The rest of Claire’s shift was uneventful. She moved from the bright fluorescent lights of the hospital as the sliding front doors whooshed her into the cool morning air. She crossed the street to reach staff parking at the back of the lot, then slid behind the wheel of her small silver car, started the engine and turned onto the nearly deserted road. It was a few minutes after 6 a.m.
Claire drove past the Waffle Shop. It was a brightly lit rectangle in the still-dark landscape and looked inviting. Half a dozen cars were in the parking lot. She could see people in booths and at the counter through the big plate glass windows. Memories of the seductive aroma of yeasty waffles, crisp bacon, butter pecan syrup and stand-you-up coffee seemed to invade her car. She almost stopped in for breakfast. She longed to immerse herself in the comfortable chatter of strangers who lived in a safe world, but she drove on by.
She was still thinking about the sickest baby in NICU and murmuring a little prayer for him when she turned at her road, South Bryan Circle, and pulled up onto the concrete pad of her carport. She moved her small Lady Smith and Wesson 350 magnum pistol from her purse to her right hand, held her keys in her left hand and walked the short distance to her front door on the narrow sidewalk. She wasn’t expecting a problem, but it had become a habitual precaution. The sky was growing lighter by the minute, and she hoped to be in bed asleep before full sunrise.
Claire smiled when she saw the neon pink flamingo stuck in the ground by the front door step. Even in the dim light of approaching morning, it was hard to miss. That was Grace’s doing, and it was the one touch of whimsy in the minimally landscaped yard. Grace brought the garish souvenir to Claire from Pensacola, when she went there to interview.
Claire spent the last two decades trying to get Grace ready for the moment when she could launch out into the world, far away from Brandon, mostly far away from herself, from anything or anyone who might harm her. She would miss Grace, but she was glad 500 miles separated them now.
Claire bent to unlock the front door, both key lock and dead bolt. She simultaneously opened the door and wiped her feet on the mat. Something hard and jiggly grabbed her. It rattled and moved as she screamed. “Let me go! Let me go!” She almost fell over backward as her right arm jerked when her pistol fired. Whatever it was that had hold of her let go and fell to the floor with a noisy clatter. Breathing hard, nearly hyperventilating, Claire flipped on a ceiling light with the butt of the pistol on the light switch just to the right of the front entry.
A skeleton. Damn it. It’s a toy. The white plastic skeleton was a Halloween prop. It was suspended by the foyer light fixture with fishing line. Some of the hideous bones were still dangling from the light. Claire looked at the mess at her feet. She saw the skeleton’s bony hands were wired to hold a large rectangle of stiff white card stock which now had a bullet hole through the middle of it. Her shot hit the card a few inches below the message, which was printed in large black block print stick-on letters:
IF YOU TELL HER, I WILL KNOW. THE GIRL WILL DIE.
Claire turned on the porch light and looked around to see if any neighbors were reacting to the gun shot. She didn’t see anyone, so she came back inside, double-locked the door, and walked through the rest of the house, turning on lights as she went.
He’ll never quit as long as I live. He’ll never believe I won’t tell Grace who she really is. By the time Claire completed her search and satisfied herself that no one was in the house, she knew what she had to do to stop this.
Some time or other we all hop in the wrong direction and land in deep water. If we’re lucky, we find a place to huddle and hope for a hand and not a hawk. This wee bunny was huddled on the molded ladder step of our swimming pool early this morning. I fetched thin slices of carrot, shredded a bit of lettuce, found a small container and lined it with a soft towel, then slipped out the sliding glass doors, leaving Lou Lou Belle inside. I wanted to be sure it really was a baby bunny and not a woods rat. I knelt on the concrete and peered over into the recessed space. Bunny. Sitting in about a half inch of water. I tried to offer a bite of lettuce, but it floated away. Not good. That bunny needed to get out of the pool, but it was tricky. Luck was a major factor — I was able to get a decent hold on the now struggling bunny, who leapt out of my hands as soon as it was on dry land. Immediately hopped over to a clump of grass and began nibbling. Whew. I looked out to the edge of the woods where I have been seeing two adult rabbits the past few weeks. Sure enough. One of them, maybe Mama, was watching. “Here’s your baby. Right here. I’ll take Lou for a walk to the gate. You come get your baby while I’m gone.” Lou and I took a good long walk. Baby’s gone. Mama’s vanished, too. It’s going to be a really good day.
for the record
Something about the little red pickup truck out there on the used car lot with all the beige sedans tugged at her. “Me! Pick me!”
She set the GPS for 702 Balconies on the Bay, Pensacola, Florida, her new home some 500 miles northwest, interstate all the way, and then went back in the house to get the rest of her stuff.
After four years in nearby Gainesville at the University of Florida, where she came home about once a month, and another three years of law school at UNC-Chapel Hill, she had been nearly on her own for seven years. Chapel Hill was more than 700 miles from Brandon, a small town near the bulls-eye middle of Florida; much too far to come home often.
Life in a small apartment near the campus there had felt like moving from darkness to sunlight. She loved her mom, and she knew Claire was devoted to her. God knows, she had sacrificed her life to see that Grace had everything she needed, from clothes and piano lessons, to the extras at college that scholarships didn’t offer. It’s just that her mom seemed so lonely, unhappy and anxious. Grace remembered awakening to the sounds of her mother crying even when she was in high school. But Claire resisted all of Grace’s efforts to learn why she was so sad and isolated.
Grace looked around her bedroom one last time. The white chenille bedspread with yellow throw cushion, stuffed animals, books and other childhood mementoes arranged on a bookcase beside the bed. Lots of memories here. It looks like the museum of child who will never return. Grace sighed and slipped out the door.
“Mom?” I’m just about ready to go.”
“I’m in the kitchen, honey.”
Grace found Claire standing at the kitchen sink. She was holding a cereal bowl in one hand and a dish towel in the other. She stood with her slender left leg cocked and balanced against her right knee, unmoving, leaning in slightly and looking out the window as though she saw something far away. Grace wondered for the thousandth time why her mom had never married or even had a boyfriend. No dates. No friends. Not even church. All she did was work at the hospital and come home.
She had been so pretty, too. Still was, except for frown lines that had developed on either side of her mouth, and the way her shoulders hunched, making Claire look shorter than she was.
Suddenly, Grace didn’t want to go.
“Come with me, Mom?”
“Oh, Grace Ann, you know I can’t.”
“But, Mom, Pensacola is a regional medical hub. You could get a great job there in a heartbeat. I’ll bet you would love the beach, maybe even have some fun for a change. Besides, you’ll be here all by yourself.”
“Well, not exactly by myself. You found out I do have a life, after all, right?”
Grace put up her hands in self-defense. “Okay, okay. You got me.” They both laughed.
“Besides, those little babies in neonatal need me, plus I’ve got young nurses to train as they come along. I’m old school. You know that. Anyway, hey, my life is almost done. Yours is just beginning. You’ve got to go find your life.”
Almost done? At 42? She almost had me convinced until she said that. Grace tried to fathom who this secretive person really was.
“Well, at least promise me that now I’m off your payroll, you’ll make some friends and learn how to play and have some dreams of your own. You don’t have to worry about me anymore.”
Claire’s sad-eyed smile reminded Grace of the paintings she had seen in books and on the internet of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It was equally enigmatic. “Come on, now, and give me a big hug before you go.”
Grace figured she was too much of a loner to ever marry or have children, but she sure didn’t plan to live like her mother did. No way. She planned to make her own money, travel the world and play with some gorgeous men, but never fall in love.
Big talk for a little girl. Here she was, headed off for her first job with her newly minted law degree. She hadn’t even passed the Florida Bar yet.
“Okay, Mom. Are my sandwiches in the fridge?”
“I stuck them on top of your little cooler. It’s right here,” Claire said. “I’ll take it out to the car.”
They finished loading the hatchback together, then shared one last hug.
Claire stood straight, shoulders back, and looked intently at Grace. “I’m so proud of you, daughter. You’ve worked hard for this. You’re going to make a fine lawyer, my beautiful girl.” She ruffled Grace’s short, copper-colored hair in a gesture of affectionate dismissal. Claire folded her arms over her chest. “You have a long drive and a lot of work ahead of you, sweet-pea. Better get going.”
“Come see me soon?”
“Soon,” Claire said. She threw her arms around Grace and held on tight. “Don’t you ever forget I love you,” she said, her voice suddenly thick. She squeezed Grace hard, then took a deep breath and stepped away. Her face closed like a heavy, hardback book. She laughed and gave Grace a little push and a pat on her bottom. “Now off with you.”
Grace turned the key in the ignition and lowered the driver’s side window.
“One more thing.” Claire’s voice had turned sharp, her demeanor tense. “Look in the console.”
Grace cocked her head at Claire, then turned away from the window and opened the console. She touched the hard surface of a black hand-gun and jerked her hand back. “What the hell, Mom?”
“It’s a nine millimeter Beretta. Loaded. Point and shoot. Soon as you get situated in Pensacola, sign up for classes and get yourself a concealed carry permit.”
“Good grief, Mom, don’t you think this is a little over the top?”
“Just do it, Grace. Indulge a crazy old woman, okay? And that canister beside the gun is pepper spray. Steer clear of strangers, stay awake and aware, and call me when you get in. I’ve got the night shift, so I’ll sleep from about 2 this afternoon ’til around 8, but I’ll have my cell phone close by.”
She looked again at the pistol, and then closed the console, making sure it clicked securely. She wondered what demons ran around in her mom’s paranoid brain. Time to get out of Dodge, all right.
“Okay, Mom, will do. Thanks for everything. I’m gone. Love you.”
Claire stepped away from the truck and gave Grace a thumbs-up that turned into a wave. “Bye! Drive careful!”
Grace backed up, pulled out of the driveway of the white concrete block house and watched as the waving figure of her mother grew ever smaller in the rearview mirror.
“My life is almost done.” What on earth was she talking about? Sometimes her mother drove her crazy. She was so full of contradictions. Every time Grace tried to ask her questions about her background, Claire just gave her a song and dance about being an orphan herself and that that’s why she had adopted her. As for no husband or friends, Claire insisted she was married to her job and had just never found the right guy.
Claire had never been a real drinker, but sometimes she would drink Tennessee bourbon and get a little weepy. Grace found her this way once when she came home a day early from Gainesville. By the time she was away at law school in North Carolina and didn’t come home nearly as often, every time she came home, she noticed that bourbon and rocks was Claire’s constant companion, and a new cigarette was lit from the end of an old one. The straight vodka was a new wrinkle. She remembered reading somewhere that vodka was the drink of choice for alcoholics.
Grace asked her to see somebody she could talk to, but Claire just blew her off. It scared Grace and made her angry, too. And then this thing with Randy, or whatever his name was.
Grace suddenly realized her hands had such a death grip on the steering wheel her knuckles were white. Turn around. Go back. Turn around. Go back. She felt hot tears stinging the back of her eyelids.
A huge 18-wheeler right on Grace’s tail shook her awake and she realized she was going several miles per hour under the speed limit. The truck zigzagged dangerously around her.
Grace pulled off onto the next exit. She pulled into a parking space at a gas station supercenter and pushed a speed dial number on her cell phone.
“Grace, is everything okay?”
“Sure, Mom, I just wanted to hear your voice.”
Claire laughed. “You’ve only been gone a half hour.”
“I know. I stopped to get gas and some coffee and a cookie for the road and, well, I guess it dawned on me that I really am going off to make my own home, now. This isn’t like going away to college.”
“You’re going to have a good life, Grace. Now get after it.”
“Yes ma’am. I’m on my way. Love you, Mom.”
“Love you, too. Drive careful.”
She said “Bye,” but Claire had already broken the connection.
She topped off her gas tank and got a big black coffee for the road a few blocks from her house. When she returned to the car, she chuckled at Elisha Walter buckled into the passenger seat, looking straight ahead like a docile pet.
Grace shook her head and laughed. Mom, again. Elisha Walter was a big teddy bear made from the flour sacks of a long-closed fabric mill somewhere in North Carolina. “E.W.” had been around as long as she could remember. A gun and a stuffed bear. Maybe Mom really is nuts. Grace smiled over at the bear, accelerated onto the interstate ramp and cranked up the radio volume on an oldies station. Beach music. Perfect.
It was late afternoon when Grace exited I-10 onto the I-110 spur to downtown Pensacola. She stopped off at the Publix grocery store on 9th Avenue for a few items for supper and breakfast, and then drove on to her new home at Balconies on the Bay.
She had really lucked out with the condo. It belonged to one of the partners at her new employers, the Hansen, Brautigan and Lee law firm. Opal Lee had inherited the condo from her late mother, and she had been trying to sell it for months. She made Grace an offer she couldn’t refuse. If Grace would agree to keep the nicely furnished, waterfront condo in “show” condition and let realtors continue to show it, then Opal would rent it to her for much less than market price. Then, if it sold while Grace was living there, she would have 90 days to find a new place, plus Opal would pay her a $500 bonus on the way out. When her friend Ariel got word she’d been hired by the University, she and Grace made a deal to split the rent on the condo.
Grace pulled into the condo entrance and tapped in the key code for the gate. It rose slowly and she drove through to her designated parking space. Opal had sent Grace keys plus a packet of written details on the condo. Grace filled her arms with her store purchases and entered the lobby. Beautiful. She took the polished-brass elevator to the seventh floor, and found No. 703, a waterfront end unit.
She opened the door to the two-bedroom unit that exceeded her dreams of the perfect waterfront apartment. It was decorated in colors and textures that stylistically evoked the beach and tropical warmth. Ocean blue and sea grass tones were punctuated with splashes of the corals and reds of a Gulf sunset. Wow. Feels like I tripped and fell into somebody else’s life.
Grace found the kitchen and quickly stashed her purchases, then ran all seven floors down the stairs to the lobby, where she found a cart and used it to make several trips unloading the Escape. She checked out the bedrooms and picked the master for herself. It had a set of sliding glass doors onto the balcony and a nice set of windows looking out over the bay.
With the last load, it dawned on Grace that she hadn’t even opened the drapes to check out the view. When she did, the sight of a sailboat drifting in the bay, gulls and pelicans wheeling, and a gorgeous sunset greeted her. Incredible. I hope this place never sells and I get to stay here forever. Ariel’s gonna love it.
Grace turned on the oven to pre-heat, and then changed into a pair of comfy old jeans and a black t-shirt she pulled from her suitcase. She pulled the cork on a glass of Mark West Pinot Noir, an inexpensive, but mellow and tasty red wine, and took it out to the balcony to sip on while her veggie pizza cooked. She remembered seeing a fat candle in a glass hurricane shade in the kitchen, and went back inside to get it and some matches.
Grace put the candle on the small round patio table, lit it, and said a silent prayer of thanks for her new home and job. Even a law degree from a prestigious school didn’t guarantee a good job these days, and the chance to live in solitude in paradise was icing on the cake. Grace was humble enough to know she was living under a lucky star.
Grace ate her pizza slowly, and raised her glass in a toast to the moon shimmering on the water over the placid bay. She stepped inside for a couple of Dove dark chocolates and her cell phone. She just had to call her mom and share the moment.
They look good enough to eat; their fresh color brings to mind micro-greens and shaved fennel salads I ate in Monterey, California back in the 1980’s when Buck and I were honeymooning and hiking. Garnished with ripe nectarines, the aroma suffused the bright crunch of greens. Tiny clusters of enoki mushrooms gathered at plate’s edge brought me to a magical forest floor. How marvelous that the sight of new magnolia leaves in our Longleaf pine woods would spark a favorite memory.
I was always hungry, then, and everything tasted like immortality.
Buck never forgets a thing. He rummaged around in “the old red building,” our name for the metal storage shed he bought more than thirty years ago to store tools, gas cans, old paint cans, and “stuff.” You know. “Stuff.”
Anyway. He emerged from the red building with a sealed package containing an old n25 face mask, the type he used to (sometimes) wear while running the the ancient Case 60-hp tractor. The type of mask made famous by their short supply for medical workers in the Covid-19 crisis.
We had already decided that when we made a supply run to Publix, I would be the one to go in, for several reasons:
- I’m 13 years younger.
- I’m female.
- My blood type is O-positive.
- My immune system isn’t compromised. Buck’s radiation and chemo in 2014 saved him from Mantle-cell lymphoma, but left his white blood cells not quite up to par.
He drops the mask onto my desk. “You can wear this.”
“Well, I can, I guess.”
We exchange a long look. I sigh. Before he can go into the “there’s only one of you and I can’t live without you so you have to take care of yourself” speech, I cave.
“Okay. I’ll wear it.”
“And I’ll drive you.”
Before I protest, I realize he may have a little cabin fever and could use a little field trip, too. “Great,” I say. “Thanks.”
“Besides,” he adds. “The dog wants to go. We’ll take the van.”
So he makes a sandwich, I cut up an apple and some cheese, put a Dentastix (her lunch treat) for Lou Lou Belle in a plastic zip bag, and we head out for the 5-mile drive to the grocery store.
All the way to the store, munching on cheese and apple, I think of reasons why it’s silly to wear the mask. How stupid it will look. How ridiculous I will feel. How it will mess up my hair and make-up. How I don’t want anybody to think I bought an n95 mask on Amazon and have deprived a medical worker of needed protection.
But under the watchful eyes of Buck and Lou Lou Belle, I struggle into the mask, bitching and complaining all the way. “It’s hot. Ow, it pulled my hair. It’s too tight.” They are unmoved. “Okay, I’ll be back in a half hour.”
I learn that the meat department guy and seafood department lady recognize me even with the mask. “I’m smiling under this thing,” I say.
“You should draw a smile on the outside,” the meat department guy says, laughing. Neither of them is wearing a mask. In fact, I only saw one employee wearing one, and that was a guy in produce. Have they all been tested? Could I learn to love the mask?
A clerk, one I’ve been seeing for decades, nearly begged me to let her take my cart out to the van. She knows I always do my own. “I really need to get out of here for a few minutes,” she says.
I advise her that a friendly chocolate Lab (is there any other kind?) will pop her head out when I open the back van doors, and that’s exactly what happens. “Can I pet her?”
“Sure,” I say.
Note to self: “Wipe Lou down with sanitizer.”
And write in my notebook one thousand times: “I am not a germaphobe. I am not a germaphobe. I am not a germaphobe. I am not a germaphobe. I am not . . . .
for the record
The last thing Grace Ann Ringer expected to see when she turned the key at her childhood home was a half-naked young guy in surfer shorts, toweling his white-blond hair dry.
“Hey, you must be Grace. Your mom’s at work. You’ve been away in Italy on some archaeology thing, huh?”
“Who the hell are you?” Grace stared.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, and closed the front door in her face.
Oh sure. It’s only my house. Take your time. Grace sat her suitcase down on the porch, and started to fish around in her purse for her cell phone to call Claire. The guy was back before she could dial. His bare chest was covered now in an egg-yolk yellow T-shirt. He put on a pair of wraparound sunglasses and stepped out onto the porch.
“Sorry about that.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Randy.”
Grace did not remove her own glasses or shake his hand. Instead, her hands closed around her cell phone, pulled it out of her purse and started to punch her mom’s work number.
“Randy” held up his hands in mock surrender and grinned. “Gotta run!”
He jogged off to a Harley parked across the street that Grace hadn’t noticed when the taxi dropped her off. The back of his T-shirt had a graphic of a beer mug overflowing with suds and “Spread Some Cheer Grab Me A Beer” printed beneath it. The motorcycle fired up and the boy toy was gone.
Had Claire moved? Grace saw the pink plastic flamingo she had given her mom stuck in a low shrub by the porch steps. Nope. This is the right house, all right. Maybe menopause has changed mom’s personality. Whoa, there’s a thought. Grace couldn’t remember anyone ever being in the house when she was growing up, except for a walk-through by an exterminator or an appliance repairman. Not family. Not friends. Never a boyfriend.
“Wow…” Grace shook her head and laughed, picked up her bag and went in. The flight from Rome to Tampa via Madrid and Miami was grueling. She was eager to shuck the clothes she’d been in for more than a day, take a hot shower and crash for a few hours. She had a pile of laundry to do, mostly jeans and tees, her “dig” uniform, but that could wait.
Damn, mom. Can’t believe you’re a nurse and still smoking. Grace found a can of air freshener and walked through the small house spraying as she went. The central Florida spring morning was still cool enough to open the windows and let in some fresh air, which she did in her bedroom and the bathroom.
On her way back to lock the deadbolt on the front door, she picked up several full ash trays and dumped them into a plastic grocery bag, tied off the end, and put them in the kitchen trash can. A nearly empty glass caught her eye in the living room. Grace picked it up. Sniffed. Booze. Great. It’s not the drinking, it’s leaving it messy like that. Knowing I’m coming home. Grace herself was fastidious to a fault, and she knew it. She sighed. Just let it go. She picked up the glass and put it in the dishwasher.
Grace went back to her room, took off her travel clothes and sat cross-legged on the bed to call Claire.
“Grace! Are you home? Did you have a good flight?”
“Hi, mom. Yes, I’m home. Long flight, but no problems. I can’t wait to see you and tell you all about Italy. When we you get in?”
“My shift ends at two, so I should be home in a couple of hours.”
“Great. I’m going to take a hot shower and crash. Wake me up when you come in.”
“Oh, and mom?”
“Why didn’t you warn me about Randy?”
“You know. Randy. Your boyfriend.”
“Sweetheart, I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about. I’ve got to go. One of the preemie’s alarms is beeping.”
“Okay,” Grace said, but the phone had already gone dead.
~ ~ ~
“Sorry, boss. I screwed up.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The girl almost caught me.”
“Skeet, I ain’t gettin’ what you’re telling me. Slow down. What exactly happened?”
“Sorry. Okay. I got the cameras in place on the assignment, and was just about to leave when I saw a taxi cab pull up and the subject’s daughter got out with a suitcase and headed straight for the front door, keys in her hand.”
“Tell me about it. I had to think quick. So I pulled off my shirt, threw some water on my head to make it look like I just got out of the shower, and was toweling off when I answered the door.”
“Well, on short notice, all I could think of was to pretend I was the mom’s boyfriend.”
“Of all the dumb . . .”
“Hang on, now. I was caught. What should I have done? Anyway, look, it worked out okay. I pulled my shirt back on, said hi, and was out of there in less than a minute. How surprised will she be when her mom lies to her about having a boyfriend?”
“Huh. You say you got the cameras in place?”
“Yes, sir. And I checked to be sure the phone bugs are still there.”
“Well, shit, Skeet, this couldn’t have worked out better if we’d planned it.”
“What? Does that mean I’m not fired?”
“Hell, no, you’re not fired. Not this time, anyway. Look, this way, the girl figures her mother’s lying, but the mother will know it’s a message from whoever’s been warning her to keep quiet. She’ll be scared shitless.”
“What should I do now?”
“Go to the pad and make sure the cameras and microphones and recorders are working. Stock up on food, so you don’t have to leave. Monitor and report. I want to hear every damn word those two women say until the daughter leaves for her new job in Pensacola next week.”
“Got it, Mr. Perlis.”
~ ~ ~
Grace almost fell asleep standing in the fine spray of the shower in the hall bath. Say what you will about the romance of the Italian countryside – and it was considerable – there was nothing like good old American plumbing. She luxuriated in the plentiful hot water, and after drying off and slathering on lotion, pulled on an old cotton sleep shirt and crawled under the covers in her bright yellow bedroom. When you’re travel-tired and jet-lagged, sleep either comes heavy like a near coma, or eludes you entirely. Grace was lucky.
She didn’t even dream, and when she woke up, the late afternoon sun leaking through the wooden shades of her room made a striped pattern of light and dark. She pulled both arms out from under the covers and stretched them up behind her head. Had it been nine months since she had been home? It felt like only a few days, and yet she knew it would take weeks to process all that had happened in Italy. Leaving Carlo had not been easy. It was probably for the best that she would be plunging into a new town, a new job, and a new life in less than a week. Besides, travelling light was her signature, and while the lithe Carlo was charming and fun, she had never thought of him as the love of her life. Truth was, she couldn’t wait to start her first professional job as a staff attorney with Brautigan, Hansen and Lee in Pensacola.
Grace heard the “thwack” sound of the aluminum-frame of the shower door down the hall, threw back the covers and slid her feet into the fuzzy old bunny slippers that were right where she had left them the last time she was home.
“Mom?” Grace called, walking down the hall.
“In here. Come on in.”
Claire’s thin frame was swallowed by a large bath towel wrapped around her and tucked at the top. Her wet brown hair was swaddled in a towel turban, and she was squeezing a line of toothpaste onto a blue toothbrush when Grace pushed open the door.
Without makeup, the new lines on Claire’s face and dark shadows under her eyes were shocking. She seemed to have aged ten years in the past nine months. What on earth’s been going on since I left? Grace recovered herself and put on a bland smile.
“Hi mom.” She learned over and gave Claire a peck on the cheek. “Throw on some jeans and let’s go over to the hibachi grill.”
“Sounds good. I’ll be ready in fifteen.”
~ ~ ~
The neighborhood hibachi grill restaurant was a little run down, but comfortable. It didn’t matter how empty or full the tables were, Mr. Nota, the owner, insisted that customers wait at the bar for the stars to align themselves for the requisite number of diners at one of the hibachi tables. Grace and Claire perched on rickety stools at the small bar counter. A young man who looked like a younger version of Mr. Nota handed them a laminated sushi menu and asked what they wanted to drink. “Two for one Happy Hour,” he said.
Claire spoke first. “Dirty martini, vodka, dry, two olives.”
“Up or rocks?” the young bartender asked.
The bartender looked at Grace, one black eyebrow raised.
“Uhm, ah, I think I’ll have cold sake, please.”
“Yes, ma’am. Sushi?”
“Yes, thanks. You guys still do those crunchy shrimp rolls?”
“Great. Bring us an order to share.” Grace looked at Claire, who expressed her assent with a non-committal thumbs-up. Sharing a sushi appetizer at the little restaurant had been a ritual for them all during Grace’s high school years, then later when she would come home from college in Gainesville, law school at Chapel Hill, and now Italy.
Her mom looked smaller than she remembered, and her skin had the sallow tones of a smoker. When had she started biting her fingernails? Claire drank the first of her two-for-one martinis like she was very thirsty and it was a glass of water. She had only eaten one of the crunchy shrimp rolls. Grace was ravenous and had eaten her share and drunk down a glass of water before she had even taken a sip of her cold sake.
She didn’t mean to be evaluating Claire like she was a specimen, but hanging around Ariel for six months volunteering on an archaeological dig had given her a scientist’s eye that had learned to draw conclusions from physical clues of the long dead. A living subject practically screamed. It was clear her mother was unhappy, worried about something, fearful or all of the above. Was Claire ill?
When Mr. Nota gave the signal, they moved from the bar to a nearly full hibachi table. A couple with two young kids in the four to six range were on one side, a moon-eyed pair who looked like they might have just invented sex anchored one end, and Grace and Claire the other. The hackneyed show provided a foil for quickly delivered egg-drop soup and cucumber salad, followed in rapid succession by shrimp and chicken with veggies and fried rice.
By this time, the small restaurant had filled, and the din of clanging knives, the whoosh of sudden columns of fire from the middle of the grills, and shrieks of delighted or terrified children created a hurry-up-and-eat-so-we-can-get-out-of-here feeling in Grace. She had grown accustomed to the laid-back ambiance of the Italian countryside, and this noise and culinary hucksterism jangled her nerves.
She sipped the bitter green tea and dipped bites of shrimp into the ubiquitous ginger soy sauce in a small octagonal white bowl set in front of her plate while she made a mental list of the things she had to do before leaving for her new job in Pensacola next week. Number one on the list was buying a vehicle. She sold her beat-up old Honda that had carried her from her senior year of high school all the way through college at the University of Florida in Gainesville and graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. Her new office was only a few blocks away from the condo she and Ariel had rented, and she imagined she would walk to work. Still, she needed reliable, gas-efficient transportation. She hoped to spend a lot of time at the beach, and that was about six miles away, across two bridges.
Next on her shopping list was a new wardrobe. How in the heck does a young lawyer in a small coastal town dress? Had she missed the graduate school course on that little nugget? Her current wardrobe consisted of running and hiking gear, black tees and jeans, a couple of pencil skirts and strappy high heels. She figured a trip to J. Crew, Express, and Ann Taylor would handle the basics to look professional at a reasonable price. Lucky for her, she was going to a beach town, where shorts and t-shirts were acceptable nearly everywhere. On the weekends, she planned to live in her running gear.
“Sorry, Mom. I was just thinking about how much I’ve got to get done before I leave. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, but it’s probably just jet lag catching up with me. Let’s stop by the grocery on the way home and pick up some coffee ice cream and eat it in our jammies like we used to.”
“Sounds good. I haven’t done anything that fattening since the last time you were home.”
“You’re way overdue, then, and so am I.”
They paid the tab, picked up two pints of ice cream at the neighborhood store. At home, they changed into their soft clothes and met back up in the living room for ice cream and talk.
The two women chit-chatted about Grace’s trip to Italy. Grace showed Claire photos on her laptop of the villa where she and her best friend, Ariel Lopresti, stayed. Ariel would be Dr. Lopresti soon, now that she had completed the archaeological project work in Italy that was the final step in the research for her dissertation. She angled for, and got, a job with the University of West Florida’s Anthropology Department, and she and Grace would be sharing a rented condo on the bay in downtown Pensacola where they would both begin new jobs. Grace could hardly wait.
Claire didn’t have a lot to say. Grace tried to pry something more out of her. “Have you been feeling okay, mom?”
“Sure, why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. You just seem a little tired, or something. I just worry you’re not taking good care of yourself.” Truth is, you look miserable.
“Don’t be silly. I’m fine. It’s just this shift work. I’ve been doing it since you were a kid, and you know I love my job, but those revolving shifts can mess with your sleep cycles and make it hard to get enough deep sleep. Plus, you know, I can’t help but fret about those sick little babies in NICU. “ She reached over and patted Grace’s knee. “I’m fine, sweetie. Really.”
“Well, okay,” Grace said. “But Mom, have you considered joining a gym and maybe getting into a smoking cessation program? You’re still young enough to get fit so you can go run with me on the beach when you come to see me in Pensacola.”
Claire laughed and shook her head. “Nice try, kiddo, but that’s just not me.”
“But Mom. . . “
“Hey, I almost forgot to ask you what you meant today when you said I should have warned you about my “boyfriend.” What the heck were you talking about?”
Smooth way to change the subject, Mom. “You really don’t know? Bleached blond boy toy? Kinda cute, kinda young. Rides a Harley.”
Claire sat up straight and turned the three-way lamp on the end table a notch brighter, and leaned in toward Grace. “Grace Ann, what on earth are you talking about? Where did you see this guy?”
Grace could see from her mother’s expression that she was serious. “Here, Mom. He was in the house when the taxi delivered me from the airport this morning.”
Claire looked like she could jump out of her skin. She said, “Tell me exactly what happened. Every word.”
So she did, and as she spoke, Claire seemed to grow increasingly distraught. “Mom, should we see if anything’s missing? Should we call the police?”
That seemed to get through to Claire. She leaned back in her chair and looked at Grace without saying anything.
“Mom? Are you okay? What about the police?”
Claire ran her right hand up and over her forehead through her hair, then stroked her nose with an index finger for a moment. Grace knew that familiar gesture.
“No, Grace, we don’t need to call anyone.” Claire’s mouth formed a smile. “The truth is, I have been seeing. . . ah. . . Randy, but I felt a little foolish about it and hadn’t planned to tell you. He shouldn’t have still been in the house when you got home.”
Claire looked sheepish and shrugged her shoulders.
“Way to go, Mom!” Grace said. “Far out! Are you serious about him? How did you meet? How long have you been together?”
Claire stood. “Down, girl! I’m way too tired to wade into that swamp tonight. I’m going to bed.” She reached over and squeezed Grace’s right hand, then picked up her pack of cigarettes and lighter and headed toward her bedroom. “Goodnight, Sherlock!”
“Night, Mom.” Grace double-checked to be sure all the doors were locked, then fixed herself a glass of water and turned out the lights as she walked to her bedroom.
A few minutes later she stood at the sink in the hall bathroom brushing her teeth. Mom’s a crappy liar. She doesn’t know that guy from Adam’s house cat. Why would she lie about that? What the hell? Maybe she does and just wants to shut me down. Who knows?
Grace was still rolling the mystery around in her mind after she had gone to bed. She lay there in the dark, pondering, when she saw a light go on in the hall and listened as Claire went into the kitchen. She heard the unmistakable tinkle of ice cubes, then her mother’s footfalls returning to her room. The lights went off.
Grace turned her thoughts to Carlo and wished he were here under the covers with her. That was her last conscious thought of the night.
Four thighs = two suppers for Buck and me. Tonight we enjoyed the leftovers.
There were glimmers of hope from the Covid-19 modelers this morning, along with constant incoming reports from individual states.
One of our air-conditioning system baffles stopped working today, so I called our long-time professionals, Mooneyham HVAC, to come send Danny to the rescue. He fixed the problem. We know Danny. We love Danny. But nonetheless, soon as he left, I wiped down door handles, thermostats, even the dog, with a Clorox wet wipe, then washed my hands in hot water while saying the Lord’s Prayer (20 second version!), while Buck poured me a Scotch and water before dinner.
Stay safe as you can, all y’all.
for the record
Rory Mathis was a Swiss Army knife, a whirligig of moving parts and an inveterate thrower of dice. He corkscrewed into the hard crust of the world and scooped out the earth’s warm heart. A blunt instrument, he was coarse by temperament, silky smooth by devious intent. It cost him to put a lid on it. Rory raged in the night, then filed his teeth, cleaned his nails and folded himself up into a well-tailored pocket square for the corporate board room.
Rory liked to get away from his Aunt Mary Alice and her loyal spies at Berringer Software at the home office in Asheville, North Carolina and go to Biloxi as often as he could. He liked to hop a big bird and fly to Vegas, too, but Biloxi was best. He was a big fish in a small pond there, and they treated him like some minor potentate. Or at least they had until Boots Manero started getting on his case for overdue markers. So far, Boots had only rattled privately. The staff still had orders to comp him on everything, even the big suite. He needed to wrap up this Berringer mess to be sure the joy ride continued.
Anytime Rory got the urge, it took him less than an hour to call the Beau Rivage, throw a bag into his big black 2008 Lincoln Town Car, and head for the coast. Lincoln stopped making Town Cars in 2008 and so he pampered and petted his and planned to keep it forever. He stored a brand new 2008 clone of this one with zero mileage in an air-conditioned garage. He figured the two of them would last the duration.
It was just breaking dawn when he left Waynesville. He cruised nearly straight south, a nine-hour slide from the Smoky Mountains down through the urban core of Atlanta, the sprawl of Montgomery and Mobile, to Biloxi on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
He liked having time alone on a long drive to figure out his next move in the game he called “shark chess.” The goal: remove any and all remaining obstacles that might keep him from owning every single share of Berringer Software.
He arrived at 3:30 and was pleased to see that the twenty-nine story Beau Rivage was looking impeccable as ever. He slowed to take in the huge bubbling fountain surrounded by gorgeous gardens designed with trimmed boxwoods, cone-shaped evergreens and thousands of hot pink pansies. A state-of-the-art computerized slideshow marquee assured him that he had indeed arrived at one of the major temples of the Good Life.
He didn’t care that just across the street there was a closed, rusting out gas station, the roof over the pumps hanging at a crazy angle, a souvenir courtesy of Hurricane Ivan nearly twenty years ago. Or that next to it was a derelict apartment building, windblown trash collecting along one wall, the windows boarded up and a crooked for sale sign out front.
Literature for the Beau Rivage Casino and Hotel boasted that it was where the “spirit and excitement of the French Riviera blend with the traditional elegance and comfort of the American South.”
My ass, Rory thought as he pulled in under the wide portico.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Mathis.”
Rory got out of his car holding a slim attaché case. “Do you have an envelope for me?”
He took the envelope from the kid, gave him ten dollars and stepped toward the entrance. “Park it and bring my bags up right away.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Mathis.”
Rory approached the lobby threshold. Enormous glass doors silently slid open as he approached. He felt a whoosh of refrigerated, nicotine-scented air. Off to the right, he saw a growing throng of people standing stoically at a bank of check-in counters.
He chuckled, glad to have the key to a penthouse suite in the envelope in his hand. The waiting crowd looked like a bunch of refugees from Central Casting. Rory had seen some version of them all before: a group of pudgy, middle-aged nurses checking in for a convention and some guys in polo shirts he immediately typecast as “golfers.” One fellow wore a bright tropical shirt, straw hat, and clenched an unlit cigar in his mouth. His nose was red, bulbous, his eyes bleary. And there were elderly folks, lots of them, grimly leaning on walkers and listing heavily to one side as they lurched slowly forward.
He never went into the faux opulent shops, but derived a certain satisfaction from the subliminal messaging they delivered. The glitz of Bally, DKNY, The Jewel Box and Tommy Bahama sibilantly whispered, “This can all be yours. Step right up, my friends, step right up.”
Guests were invited to patronize a gourmet coffee shop where any adult could amend their morning coffee with a shot or two, or three, of whiskey. The bonhomie streamed out like molasses, laid on thick with a feel-good trowel.
The hotel elevators seamlessly linked the shops and the beating, smoking heart that drew him in: the casino itself. Before going up to his room, Rory passed through a gauntlet of purple-jacketed security officers who expertly checked him out, and nodded him into the casino. The dark lighting and edgy mood was an intravenous drug straight into his bloodstream.
Rory took a lung-filling breath. He inhaled heady aromas of whiskey, cigarette smoke and sweat, emitting the distinctive pheromones of fear, excitement, and desperation. He was at home in the cavernous chamber filled with electronic slot machines, a twenty-first century version of the old one-armed bandit. Women and men sat trance-like, a thick stack of dollar bills in one hand, cigarette or glass of booze in the other, grimly punching buttons. Their fluorescent casino pallor labeled them as regulars.
The constant weird noise was standard background in casinos everywhere. It was famed at the top by piped-in oldies soft rock, and underpinned by bubbling up layers of electronic game sounds. Rory cut figure eights through the slots and game tables, picking up on the loser smell. Feels like I’m on the set of a Star Trek the Next Generation set, one where The Borg have gotten people into pods for assimilation.
Everywhere he looked, someone was looking back. The observers were equipped with headsets, wireless microphones and at least two cell phone/radio devices hooked onto belts and nestled in the small of their back. Are we having fun yet?
The hive-like humming sound and the overabundance of glassy-eyed, road-kill faded blondes and old people dragging portable oxygen tanks around eventually made Rory claustrophobic, eager for the cool, quiet, intense atmosphere of the private, high-stakes glass-in room set into the walls at a higher level than the electronic pit.
It was early, though, and the games and players he was interested in wouldn’t be gathering until later in the evening. Besides, he had some work to do first.
Rory left the casino and took an elevator to his penthouse suite to plan his next move. He walked to the first phone in the opulent suite and dialed room service.
“Yes, Mr. Mathis?” The server’s unctuous tone was gratifying.
“Yes sir. On its way. Will there be anything else this evening?”
“No. That’s it.”
Rory closed the heavy drapes that opened onto a magnificent view of the Gulf of Mexico and sat back in a black leather club chair in the dark room to think about his strategy and wait for room service.
Shark chess is a three-dimensional game. As sharks go, Rory was mid-size. His man, Bo Perlis, was small, but fast and lethal. Boots Manero, enforcer for the mob, was a Great White. Missteps were costly.
He ticked items off one by one on the four fingers of his left hand. One: Uncle Troy’s out of the picture. Two: Aunt Mary Alice is almost in my pocket and has one foot on a banana peel, the old bitch. Three: My pathetic niece, Claire. She’s on the edge and about to topple over. Four: her daughter, Grace. That one could be trouble, but Perlis is on it.