eye of the storm ~ chapter eleven

For the record.

Chapter 11 

Brandon, Florida 

Claire pondered her diminishing options for years. If she had only herself to worry about, it would be easy. She would work at her job until one day there was a hit and run, or a drive by shooting. At least she could continue taking care of the babies in the neonatal unit at the hospital and maybe do some good right up until she was killed.  If she were the only one in the picture, she would have taken her chances and contacted her parents years ago. Maybe. But even that would have likely put them all in danger. She went over it in her head a thousand times, trying to figure a way out of this mess. 

Sometimes a young person makes a decision that irrevocably changes the course of their life forever. That day twenty-five years ago when she ran away with Pete Hunsicker was such a move. Claire was 17, a junior in high school, and pregnant, the latter a fact that she did not share with Pete until they were well away from Waynesville, North Carolina and living in a third-floor walk-up apartment in New Orleans near the French Quarter, where he worked as a bartender and ran the illegal video poker room at a dive off Rue Morgue. 

Claire thought running away to New Orleans with Pete, a good-looking, slick-talking older guy, a friend of her Uncle Rory, would be a romantic adventure. She had dreams of becoming a writer or an actress, and figured this episode in her life would be a fun lark, something she could tell her grandchildren about someday. 

Besides, her parents were consumed by building their company, Berringer Software, and probably wouldn’t miss her, anyway. Such were the thoughts of a lonely 17-year old. 

Pete blew up when Claire told him about the baby. He gave her enough money for an abortion, but when she refused, he told her how dumb she was and that he had no intention of being saddled with her and a kid, slapped her, and said “You will take care of this. Tomorrow, okay?” She worried about it all the next day, but couldn’t bring herself to go to the family planning clinic and kill her baby. Pete went a little crazy with her when he found out she didn’t go. He shook her, got right in her face and told her if she didn’t go the next day, he would take her himself and then throw her out on the street. So she promised she would go. 

When he was at work that night, she packed her one small bag, wrote Pete a note telling him he wouldn’t have to worry about her anymore and left. There was enough cash from the abortion money to rent a cheap room in another parish across town. She got a job a waiting tables at a café next door. It was a local place with a trade that mostly included the drunks that came from any one of several neighboring bars to get cheap omelets, beignets and chicory coffee. 

Claire poured herself a tall glass of vodka over ice and muttered to herself as she walked around the house making sure all the doors and windows were locked. She took the bottle of liquor and a small ice bucket to the bedroom, turning off lights as she went. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Hot tears collected behind her eyes. No. The time’s past for that, idiot. Time to protect Grace if you can. 

Claire had been preparing for this day ever since she got the first anonymous threatening card more than twenty years ago. She hated lying to Grace all these years, hated the mess she made of her own life, hated the bastard that made her life a living hell, hated Pete Hunsicker, and hated herself. 

She especially hated lying to Grace on their last phone call. She wrote the points she wanted to cover on a small sticky note which she flushed down the toilet after they said good-bye. 

Claire researched how to check if your telephone was bugged. Pretty simple, really. When she found the bug three weeks ago, she couldn’t stop shivering. She was so mad she wanted to rip it out of the wall and drown it in the bathtub. 

That’s when she knew “he” – whoever “he” was – wouldn’t quit until she was dead. She had to convince him or them that she never told Grace who she really was. And she hadn’t. So she needed to concoct a little bit of theatre for the listener’s benefit and then cut off any potential of a future leak at its source, which, sadly, was herself. 

Claire’s access to substances from the hospital would guarantee a quick, certain, painless result. She cautiously gathered them for months. She sensed there was a narrow window of opportunity to do this thing once Grace graduated from law school, took her after-graduation trip to Italy with her friend Ariel, came home to pack up all her belongings, and moved to her new job in Pensacola. But she couldn’t drag it out. She was convinced she was a dead woman either way. At least by following her own script there was a chance she could save Grace. 

The one dumb thing she had done was to send the bear made out of flour sacks, Elisha Walter, “E.W.,” with Grace. Putting the big stuffed bear in the Grace’s car was a last minute irresistible impulse. She still didn’t know what she hoped to accomplish, and hoped her rash act never endangered Grace. 

E.W. held a secret in his belly. Claire used a surgical scalpel to make an incision along one of the flour sack seams on his back. She carefully removed part of the packing material and inserted a thin scroll of papers into E. W.’s mid-section, re-stuffed him, and resealed the seam with tiny stiches. 

That thin scroll was the only evidence in the world that proved Claire Ringer was born Ann Mathis Berringer, only child of Troy and Mary Alice Berringer, billionaire founders of Berringer Software. 

eye of the storm ~ chapter ten

For the record.

                         Chapter Ten 

By the time Grace got home to the condo and changed into what she called her “soft clothes,” – an old t-shirt and some running shorts with the elastic nearly worn out – she had become more philosophical about her roller-coaster of a day. 

She thought about it while she brewed a cup of Zen green. Just my luck. Meet the man of my dreams, charm him and then turn him into a sworn enemy all in one day. Oh well. I’ve got job to do and there’s more than one good-looking guy in Pensacola. 

She took her mug of tea and a ginger cookie out to the balcony. What a day. It wasn’t just meeting Jess. The whole day was wild, from the hurricane drill itself, to the great music and food, the gorgeous beach, meeting P. J. and Evangline and the twins, and, well, Jess. It really started and ended with him. I’ve got a feeling we’re not done, yet. 

Grace sat in a patio chair facing the water and watched as a gleaming trawler angled into its berth at the marina next door. She enjoyed watching the waterfront comings and goings of boats, people and their dogs. 

One of her favorites was a sailboat “live-aboard.” The owner was a fat guy who looked for all the world like he was wearing a muskrat on his head. His dog, a tiny, feisty Yorkshire terrier, had fuschia bows in his fancy dog salon hair, and wore a set of designer canine water wings. Grace knew the harness was a floatie, because earlier in the week she saw him try to get fresh with a big black female Labrador retriever. When the retriever’s belly fur got tickled by the bodacious little Yorkie walking under her and sniffing, the Lab gave a loud bark and ducked her head under her chest to grab the little dog. The alert owner yanked on the Yorkie’s leash which propelled the little dog straight into the water. Grace leaned over the balcony and watched the big man scoop up the floating dog. It looked like a wet rat. Together they disappeared into the cabin of the sailboat, leaving the Lab looking like “What did I do? 

Grace spent a few more minutes on the balcony, listening to the strains of music floating over from the marina, and suddenly realized she was exhausted, and went in to bed. 

The next morning Grace woke up early, pulled on her running gear and headed out. After only one week in Pensacola, Grace had developed a great enthusiasm for living downtown.  Her law firm was only three blocks away in the core of downtown offices and government buildings, and she loved being able to walk to work. There were sidewalks everywhere, just right for runners. She decided to jog by her office building first and then explore the downtown core by running a grid pattern. 

She ran by all sorts of little shops and restaurants sandwiched in between City Hall, the post office, the courthouse, and countless lawyer’s offices, including her own. There was a beautiful old Episcopal church that showed Pensacola’s Spanish heritage. She passed a French bakery with adorable little black iron chairs out front. People sat at round tables reading the morning paper and chatting. Smells of café au lait and croissants wafted across her nose and made her stomach growl. 

The ornate wrought iron balconies with cascading flower baskets on second floor loft apartments above shops on Palafox Street caught her eye. She stopped to snap a couple of photos with her cell phone. 

“Grace! Hey, Grace!” She turned at the shouted greeting and saw P. J. Whitacre motioning with his hand. “Come on over!” 

He was sitting by himself at an outdoor café. A jowly bloodhound that had to be Minnie Pearl was sprawled on the sidewalk by his side. 

“Good morning, P.J.!” Grace said as she headed over toward him. 

“Come on. Sit down and have a cup of coffee with me.” 

“I’ve been running. You may be sorry you asked.” 

“Shoot. Set down.” 

“Are you by yourself?” 

“Right now, I am.” He signaled the server to bring another cup of coffee. “Sit.” 

She sat. Minnie Pearl raised her head to sniff at the newcomer. Grace reached over and stroked the dog’s long, soft ears. Then she cocked an eyebrow at P.J. “You must not have talked to Jess since last night.” 

“Sure I have. You remember that old “Godfather” movie?” He looked serious. 

“Sure. I’ve read the books and seen all the movies several times.” 

“Remember where the Godfather says, ‘Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer?’” 

Grace felt like she had been struck in the face, looked down at her shoes, and started to scrape her chair backward as if to get up. Then she heard a low rumbling chuckle. It was P.J. 

“Grace Ann,” he said, laughing. “You ought to see your face. Now stay put and drink your coffee, girl.” 

“But, P.J., this isn’t funny. This is awful.” 

“Look, I know it’s bad. Jess is sulled like an old possum. But you didn’t plan to meet him yesterday, did you?” 

“No.” She frowned and shook her head. “I had no idea until you brought up Tom and Sally Harper that I would become a black hat all of a sudden.” 

“Well, it’s a serious matter for Jess and his whole family, Grace. No doubt about it. And it’s a damned shame that you’re going to caught up in the middle of it.” 

“I guess Jess is really close to his grandparents?” 

“Sure. Old Tom and Sally are two of the best people ever put on God’s green earth. Wish they were my grandparents.” 

“I guess the whole family’s close. I met his step-mom, Evie, and his little sisters last night.” 

“Jess was 15 when his real mom died. It was bad. Jess and Grant and their dad, Doc Ryan, were messed up for a long time. Everybody worried they were going to just dry up and blow away. Jess was bad to fight there for a few years. Look close at him and you’ll see that nose of his has been broken a couple of times.” 

“How old was Jess when Dr. Harper and Evie got married?” 

The server drew near their table with a carafe of coffee. P.J. motioned with a nod and an index finger to Grace’s mug and his own.  “He was 18. That’s easy to remember, because we were both just about to head off to college. Hard to believe that was almost 12 years ago. 

Grace smiled. “Evie’s really something. She really made me feel at home.” 

“Yep. She’s the luckiest thing that could’ve happened to that crew. Her and those two little girls.” 

“I can see why. I got to meet Kate and Belle last night, too.” 

“Yeah, they’ve got Jess totally wrapped. If you ask me, I think Jess is hankering to settle and have some rug rats of his own. If he could find the right woman, that is.” 

Grace felt color in her face, but she tried to act casual. “Has he had any near misses?” 

“Only one. That would be Miss Logan Nicole Westmoreland.” P.J. spoke her name like some historical figure he didn’t much care for. 

“What happened?” 

“She and Jess were high school sweethearts. She went to FSU in Tallahassee when we did. He sure was crazy about that little gal. She had modeled some in high school, was queen of the debutante court, all that stuff, then got into FSU’s theatre program.” 

“Sounds good, so far.” 

“Yeah, it was all good for the first three years. She and Jess got engaged, and set a date to get married soon as they graduated. But something happened in our senior year. She decided she wanted to live in New York and work in musical theatre on Broadway; that she didn’t want to get married and live in a small Southern town where she’d been all her life.” 

“Is she still there?” 

“No. Last I heard she had moved to California to try and get into movies or TV and wound up marrying several guys along the way. ” 

“Not at once, I hope.” 

P.J. laughed. “Oh no, she’s a serial marrier, that girl.” 

“Well, I guess she broke Jess’s heart.” 

“Yeah, but he’s been past that for a long time. It made him wary, though. Half the girls in town want to marry Jess, or at least dance around some with him. Good lookin’ cuss. That black hair and blue eyes gets ‘em. I should be so lucky. They don’t seem to notice he’s a little sawed off and most of them are taller than he is when they put on those spike heels. Plus, he’s courtly, almost like one of those Texas cowboys. Got that from his dad and his granddad. Add to that the fact he’s vice-president of the family’s bank and the youngest person ever elected Mayor of Pensacola,” P.J. grinned, “what’s not to like? But nope, none of them have rung his bell . . . at least not for more than a few weeks. The most important female in Jess’s life right now is that damn dog. Nothin’ more loyal than a good dog.” P.J. reached down and scratched behind Minnie Pearl’s left ear. She snuffled and yawned, her long pink tongue curling up to her nose. 

Grace sighed. “I’ve never had any kind of a pet before. No brothers or sisters, either. In fact, I was adopted, and I don’t even know who my real parents are, so all this big family stuff, with grandparents and dogs and family history is new territory. Unfortunately, there’s a conflict of interest that precludes a personal relationship. Any advice?” 

“Not really, Grace. You’ve got a job to do. Jess has his family’s interests to protect. The fact that ya’ll met and hit it off is what some old politician used to call an ‘inconvenient truth.’ Before he ran off with a sweet young thing and left my mama and me about ten years ago, my daddy used to say, “Son, sometimes the only way around a thing is through it.” 

“That’s your advice? What the heck does it mean?” 

“Well, it’s the best I can do on short notice. P.J. looked past her and said, “I guess right about now is as good a time as any to test that advice.” 

“What? What do you mean?” 

“’Morning, Jess. Pull up a chair. Hey, Angus. Come here, puppy!” 

Jess pulled up a chair and gave Grace a professional politician smile. “Good morning, Grace.” His face was smooth, unreadable. 

It cut her much worse than if he had been cold or hot with her. That studied neutrality made her ashamed and angry at the same time. She could feel her face grow hot. 

“Hello, Jess – oh my gosh, that puppy is adorable!” Grace forgot all about Jess and their conflict. If a puppy could possibly be dignified, this one was. She sat up, forepaws crossed like she had just graduated from finishing school, with her deep brown intelligent eyes and shining black coat. 

Grace surprised herself by reaching for the pup. “May I?” 

“Of course,” Jess said, and transferred the pup to Grace’s waiting arms. “This is Harper’s Angus Blackvelvet.” 

Grace nuzzled the puppy, who cuddled in her embrace. “Angus, you are even softer than velvet.” She was feeling some brand new connection. She was falling in love with a dog for the first time. 

Jess looked on without speaking. P. J. said, “Hey, now, Grace, ya’ll are gonna hurt old Minnie Pearl’s feelin’s. You didn’t make over her like you’re doing with Amanda there.” 

Grace looked up, embarrassed. She held Amanda close. She was clearly reluctant to let her go, but smiled at P.J. as she gently passed Amanda back to Jess. “I’m sorry, P.J.  I’ve never held a puppy before. Guess I got a little carried away.” 

She stood. “Thank you for the coffee, P.J.  She looked over at Jess, looking as though she was about to cry. “Thanks for letting me hold the pup, Jess.” 

Jess didn’t speak, just looked at her steady with his poker face. 

Grace took off down the sidewalk in a slow jog back toward the condo. 

“Got it bad, don’t you, son?” P. J. said, bumping Jess’s knee with his own. 

Jess looked at P.J., tight-lipped. “Drop it, P.J. I’m a big boy. That,” he said, pointing toward the disappearing Grace’s trim form, “isn’t happening, okay? You ready to head out to the farm?” 

web

Spider in its web near the streambed at Longleaf Preserve this morning.

Some days we’re the spider. Some days we’re the fly. And some thrilling days we’re the web itself, drawing all things delicate and delicious, big ideas and small, into our inexorable orbit.

eye of the storm ~ chapter nine

For the record.

Chapter Nine 

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. 

eye of the storm ~ chapter 8

For the record

Chapter Eight 

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.” 

“Any sisters?” 

“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?” 

“Herself.” 

“She’s gorgeous.” 

“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?” 

“Sure.” 

“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?” 

“No!” 

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. 

something in the marrow: a tip for writing memoir

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.

eye of the storm ~ chapter 3

for the record

Chapter Three 

Brandon, Florida 

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.” 

“Great. Thanks.” 

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. 

new magnolia leaves

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.

wearing a mask to publix

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:

  1. I’m 13 years younger.
  2. I’m female.
  3. My blood type is O-positive.
  4. 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.”

“Wear this.”

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 . . . .