Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
The hand on her cheek weighed no more than a birthmark. It fluttered, stirred by the breeze of a dream, but remained tethered to Becky’s face.
Her neck stiffened. A neutral position was out of the question. She was trapped at an odd angle between the arm of the porch swing and the breath of the child.
With one foot planted on the porch’s floorboards, and the rest of her a cradle, Becky kept the swing in motion. A smooth backstroke. Hesitation. Then as she lifted her foot, the forward stroke was accompanied by a two-toned creak the baby must have thought white noise.
Becky guessed thirteen pounds. The bulk lying stomach-down across her torso like a seatbelt might have come into the world a wisp of six—less than a gallon of milk. But seven hundred bottles later, give or take, and he could hold his own against the Costco-sized bag of sugar.
A sweat bee did a fly-by. Becky waved it off. Baby drool puddled at the top of her breastbone. She let it be, let it be.
The rich, woody scent of the neighbor’s cottonwoods melded with the lingering aroma of her caramel latte, the one in her favorite pottery mug on the small table just out of reach. The mug, her book, sanity—so much seemed just out of reach.
The baby lifted his head. Feather lashes still closed, he nestled the opposite cheek into the hollow of her neck. She patted his diapered bottom with a rhythmic, unspoken “Shh. Back to sleep, little one.”
The buzz returned, but not above them. Underneath Becky’s right hip, her cell phone thrummed. She reached for it, motionless except for the espionage-worthy stealth of her retrieve arm and the unbroken choreography of her swing foot.
The phone buzzed again, against her ear. She held it away from her, saw the familiar caller ID, and hit the “talk” button with her thumb. “What’s up, Lauren?”
An opportunity, no doubt. Chance du jour.
A finals study group that included two brainiacs and a certified member of the National Honor Society had invited Lauren to a cram-fest.
“Please don’t stay out late.” Becky felt the vibrations of her words in her chest. The baby lifted his head and nestled facing the other direction again.
Not late, Lauren answered. No. But Becky did realize the group would have to go get something to eat after studying, didn’t she?
Becky disconnected the call. She may or may not have remembered to say goodbye.
The baby oozed awake and pushed against her chest until he’d raised himself enough to lock gazes with her. Those denim blue eyes looked so like his father’s, if her suspicions were correct about the child’s paternity. She brushed strands of corn silk hair off his cherub forehead.
“Your mommy called.” Becky kissed one barely-there eyebrow, then the other. “She says hi.”
Dodging scattered mounds of clothes—distinguishable as clean or dirty only by odor—Becky crossed Lauren’s room to the crib lodged between Lauren’s dresser and her shoe jungle. Well-practiced, Becky eased the baby from her shoulder to the mattress. She pulled a blanket from the corner of the crib, but its sour smell told her it belonged in one of the piles on the floor, not wrapped around her grandson. Stifling a groan, she bent to the plastic storage tub tucked under the crib. One clean blanket, too thick for an Indian summer afternoon.
Laying babies on their backs? The “let’s change everything we knew for sure” revised recommendation from the pediatric society or some other entity still disturbed her. Hard habit to break. Aren’t they all?
Her dentist wouldn’t appreciate her new habit of grinding her back teeth. She untensed her jaw, laid the blanket to Jackson’s waist, then exited the room with an armload of laundry she shouldn’t have to wash.
Mid-hallway, she leaned against the wall. Baby socks and a pair of skinny jeans drizzled to the floor as she searched for a way to readjust her load. Not the laundry. The pieces that stuck to the rough edges of her fractured hopes.
Monica’s well-intentioned voice thundered through the throbbing tunnels in her head. “Don’t do everything for Lauren, Becky. You’re enabling her. She’ll never take responsibility if she doesn’t have to.”
Great advice, Monica. And who suffers if I don’t bathe that child, if I don’t put diapers on my grocery list, if I don’t make sure he has something to wear that doesn’t smell like curdled milk? Lauren won’t even notice.
Drafting an apology for words her friend would never hear, Becky pushed off from the wall and aimed for the laundry room.
Jackson’s cry stopped her before she recapped the Tide.
Mamas don’t get to stay out past midnight.
How had pushing a baby through her woman parts given Lauren the right to abandon the house rules? And on a school night?
Becky steeled herself for a confrontation. She’d say, and then Lauren would say, and then she’d say…
No. That hadn’t worked the last four times they’d had a similar conversation.
She drowned another tea bag—fragrant, impossibly smooth white peach—and forced her gaze away from the clock on the kitchen wall. But the digital display on the stove and microwave mocked her attempts to forget what time it was, where her daughter should be, the lure of her pillow, and the fact that Lauren’s father was missing all the fun.
I hope you’re enjoying California, Bub. She should probably use his real name. It wasn’t Gil’s fault his job demanded the kind of travel she’d find more fulfilling than he did. Wait. It was only a little after ten, Pacific time. She could call.
One ring. Two.
“Hey, honey. How’s my angel?”
“She’s not home yet.”
“I meant you, Becky.”
The sincerity in his voice was like ointment for a scraped knee. “I—”
“Are you okay, my pugalicious?”
“Gil. Not in the mood for nose-related terms of endearment, okay?”
Of course he was. Good man. The kind she’d hoped Lauren would choose one day.
“Is Jackson sleeping?” He whispered as if he could wake the baby from six states away, as the stork flies.
She swirled her teabag through the steaming water. If it were her typical daytime choice—Black Pearl—it would by now be over-steeped, the deep molasses of Gil’s eyes. “Jackson? Sleeping obliviously. Like I should be.”
“I wish I were there.”
“What’s Lauren’s excuse this time?”
Gil’s exhale traveled through the fiber optic phone lines and tickled the hairs in Becky’s ear. “Is she still talking college?”
A slosh of tea left a mini-puddle on the white countertop. She swiped at it with her palm, which turned the small puddle into a smear. “We want her to further her education, don’t we? I mean, providing she gets through this last year of high school.” She ripped a paper towel from its holder. “That’s not a given.”
“We knew this would be hard.” Blistered. His voice sounded blistered, like life’s shoes had rubbed too long on a tender spot.
“He’s our grandson.”
“And she’s our daughter.”
“That’s been confirmed, hasn’t it?”
Gil chuckled. “You mean, how did two fully responsible, completely mature adults manage to raise a daughter who seems allergic to responsibility?”
“Something like that.”
“She’s not fully grown yet, Becky.”
“Oh, that’s comforting.” The baby monitor let Becky know her not-fully-grown-yet daughter’s infant son squirmed in his crib.
“Do you want me to call Lauren on her cell?”
“I tried that. It went to voice mail.”
Gil huffed. “That’ll be the last time.”
“It’s on my list.” Becky turned away from the glare of the microwave’s time keeper.
California said, “We’re in this together, hon.”
She should have replied instantly with something that meant, “We sure are.” But six states of separation and full-time versus part-time parenting left an awkward gap she didn’t have the energy or wisdom to fill.
Somewhere beyond the walls, a car door slammed. “Never mind. She just got home.”
Posted by Bonnie S. Calhoun at 11:24 PM
Sunday, April 21, 2013
“Why in the world did I agree to do this?”
Mara Keegan’s vision blurred as she stared at the old photo she’d picked from the box for the first block on Cadence’s memory quilt. David's arm curled tightly around her pregnant waist, his other balanced a precocious three-year-old Cadence, and one-year-old Toby grinned up into his mommy's eyes. Louie, the new family border collie/lab pup sat at their feet ready to catch Toby’s graham cracker.
A smile stole across Mara’s lips. Louie nabbed that cracker and Toby wailed, right after the shutter clicked. But the picture captured the split second happy moment forever. The perfect family with so much promise. A promise broken off prematurely by a whimsical God.
Mara’s smile faded. She glanced over at her sleeping fourteen-year old dog curled up on one of his favorite oversized mutt mats. He’d been with their family since the early days. His black muzzle sported more white around his nose now. Louie seemed like the bridge from past to present as she looked back at the first picture. When would she be ready to try love again? Did she even need it? She broke out in a sweat in spite of the cold wind blowing the last of December past her windows. Not until she could trust God again. How could it have all gone so wrong? The wind gust whooshed against her office door and rattled the inset glass.
A burning sensation started in the center of Mara’s chest. She wrapped her ankles around the wooden stool legs and anchored her feet as she rubbed her midsection. This gift took more out of her than she thought. With less than five months to Cadence's graduation, she had to design and create a quilt full of memories. Memories Cadence needed as she left for college. Memories to wrap around her when she felt far from home and family. Memories Mara promised Cadence, and Mara never broke a promise.
Mara dug in her purse for a chewable antacid tablet. They’d become her favorite candy the last few months. Especially today, since the official documents for the new contract were lost when her computer network crashed after the big windstorm tore down power lines last night. No one had power for the last twelve hours on this side of Bozeman. This government contract could change the future of her business and the community. But her business mentor, Rich, jumped in to help. He’d kept the emails. By the time the computers blinked on this afternoon, she’d have his advised changes and be able to print out another set, postmark a hard copy, and fax the acceptance before the close of business back East. Okay, maybe she should eat a little better. She popped one in her mouth, scowled at the mini bottle, and threw it back in her purse.
The box of photos held too many memories. To choose the right ones for Cadence, Mara needed to sort through them one by one. “Why didn’t I just buy Cadence a car, huh, Louie?” Something easy that didn’t rip her heart out every minute of the planning. The dog opened his eyes and cocked an ear at her. The burn radiated out further. She pressed hard against her stomach to ease the pain. The antacid should help soon.
She should have eaten more than a skim latte for lunch. She needed an early start on all the photos for the t-shirt transfers. Once the photos finished printing out on transfer paper, she could leave them with Tina at the t-shirt shop overnight and pick up the photos pressed onto the poplin tomorrow. Nausea built until it reached the middle of Mara’s chest and wallowed there, squeezing the little bits of heart she had left. It figured she’d have the beginnings of an ulcer. Her neck muscles tensed and sent a shooting pain into her jaw. She opened and closed her jaw joint and wiggled the bones of her chin, but the motion didn't soothe the tension.
How long could she go on living with the way things turned out? The stress from carrying the entire business load left her with this constant tension and now the heartburn. Mara rolled her head from shoulder to chest to opposite shoulder. David’s snowmobiling accident left her in charge of twenty-five employees, business loans, and a dream built for two. But now there was one. Three years from the moment the snow buried him in the avalanche. Three years since David breathed his last. And she hadn’t stopped to breathe since. She hated the week after Christmas since the accident. Sacrilegious or not, she hated it.
Mara shook her head to clear the pity party. So a little more lost sleep, what’s new? The sooner she plowed into this promise, the sooner she’d get the sleep she needed. This present would be done on time if it was the last thing she did. Breaking the family tradition, a quilt for graduation, was not an option. It meant too much to Cadence. Maybe she should switch out the lavender candle for a citrus scent and wake up her brain. She looked up at it. Maybe later. Mara inhaled the calm fragrance.
Her head pounded. The caffeine seemed to create more jitters than normal. She pushed away the remaining drink. It’d gone cold anyway. She pulled the hair band out of her high ponytail to loosen the tension on her scalp. Mara massaged tender spots under the thick mane with one hand while she spread out several photo choices on the white workspace. Maybe she should consider cutting off several inches. The weight alone might cause these headaches. But David had always loved her hair. She hadn’t cut it more than to shape it in longer than she could remember. Had she even done that this year? Always in an updo for business, no one saw the condition her hair was in. She swept up the ends of her hip-length burnished brown locks and grimaced at them. Maybe a little change would do her good. Yeah, right. When was that going to happen? She picked up the family photo again unable to let it go. Change wasn’t always good.
Mara’s heart twisted, radiating out searing pain. She slapped a hand out for balance and instead flipped the box of photos over as she tumbled off the work stool onto the cold floor. The wooden chair clanged to the rustic clay tiles with her legs tangled in the chair rungs. The box rained down life moment scenes as if a movie reel unwound in front of her eyes. Her son, Toby, at T-ball, Marisa’s Disney Princess birthday party, and Cadence with her younger siblings tackling their daddy. Was she having a heart attack?
Louie barked in surprise and jumped up from his massive plaid dog pillow.
Pictures fluttered and scattered across the floor.
Mara’s hand held fast to her family forever frozen in a joyful pose—before God pulled his whimsical trick.
Louie barked again and bounded across the room, sliding on slick paper, to stick his nose into the back of Mara’s neck. He lay down with his muzzle across her right shoulder buried in her long brown hair.
Mara blinked. What just happened? Oh, there. She focused on David. His strong face, his tanned muscular arms that held her close, and those sparkling brown eyes grinning with little crinkles she used to trace with her fingers. David, David, I miss you. She closed her eyes.
Mara Keegan. Joel sighed as he tucked the file under his arm. Would she remember? Would she throw him out? As he rang the doorbell, Joel heard a dog barking inside. Then a pretty teen with unusual golden coloring flung the front door wide.
“Louie, knock it off!” She yelled toward the back of the house. “Sorry, he’s kind of protective. Can I help you?”
“Hi, I’m Joel Ryan,” he stuck out his hand. “Here to consult with Mara Keegan on the government contract. Is she here?”
“Sure. I’m Cadence, her daughter.” She invited him in and shivered as she flicked the ornate door closed. “Cold out there, huh?”
“Well, it’s sure not as warm at my last consulting visit in California.” Joel smiled. “But I’m used to it. I’m from Colorado.”
She had a slight Native American look, but her hair was a reddish brown and dark freckles dotted her golden cheeks. Her eyes were almost rust and rimmed with long black lashes. She wore very little make up.
Joel wondered about her mother, the woman he had yet to meet in person. Only a phone call five years ago, but now he hoped Mara didn’t remember him. He swallowed. That wasn’t one of his finer moments. Better to get it out of the way if she did put two and two together. By God’s grace, he was a different person now. Would Mara have the grace to forgive?
Louie barked several more times. “Louie, that’s enough!” Cadence yelled again. “I don’t know what’s up with him. He quits as soon as the doorbell does, but he’s usually here all up in your face and checking you out, too.” She looked around for the dog. “Weird.”
“Nice Christmas tree.” Joel nodded at the decorated fake evergreen to be polite. It was a nicer tree than his miniature on the coffee table, all designer perfect. The red and green plaid ribbons looked like someone tied each one exactly the same. His tree barely had lights.
Cadence gave the tree a small glance. “Yeah, thanks.”
He checked his triple time zone watch. His favorite tool never disappointed. Travel and daily contact with clients from Pacific to Mountain to Eastern kept him in a constant chase of the correct time. Clients in any part of the country could count on his prompt call or arrival. Plenty of time to meet the deadline, but there was no sense in delay. “May I meet with Mara?”
“Sure, follow me. She’s back in her workroom.” A hint of resentment floated in her tone. “Like always.”
The TV screen held a frozen Wii game with several cartoon Wii avatars. “Mom” wore a purple shirt and long dark hair. He sidestepped the Wii balance board on the floor and followed.
“There’s another entrance for that part of the house, if you want next time.” Cadence traipsed off into a long hallway with her braid swinging.
“Mom!” Cadence rounded the corner.
Mara lay on her left side, stiff and chilled. She opened her eyes at the alarm in her daughter’s voice.
Cadence knelt at Mara’s feet, gently picked up her mom’s top ankle, and unthreaded the wooden stool from Mara’s legs.
“I’m okay—” Mara tried to sit up but only made it to her elbow. She didn’t have the strength to push up all the way past the sharp pain in her shoulder. The dizziness rushed back. Her whole body didn’t feel all that great now either since hitting the floor. But her left shoulder really ached all the way on the inside, wow!
“Cadence, is everything all right?” A man stood in the doorway. He wore a dark blue ski parka over a business suit. Louie growled as the hair along his backbone stood on end. He leaped and stood over Mara. The man jumped back into the hall away from the big dog.
“No, Louie, no!” Cadence kept her voice steady, but firm. “Joel, he’s not mean.” She shot off without looking away from her mother. She moved around to Mara’s back and pulled Louie aside by his collar. “Good boy, now go lay down.”
Mara glanced at the stranger near the door. He looked ready to take over, but Louie held him at bay. Her old dog stood on guard, disregarding Cadence’s command.
“Here, I’ll help you up.” With her arm around Mara’s back, Cadence tried to lift her.
“I don’t think I can stand yet.” Mara leaned against the table leg. “Just give me a minute to catch my breath.” She shivered at the cold seeping up from the tiles into her legs. The shiver started a new spasm of pain in her shoulder and ankle.
“Sheesh, Mom, what did you do? How’d you end up on the floor already?” Cadence still knelt beside Mara and waited.
“I don’t know.” Mara gasped for air. “One minute I was picking out pictures for your quilt and the next I fell. Maybe I have the flu. I’m a little light-headed.” She pressed her stomach and fought for control of the nausea. “I might have twisted my ankle, though. Man it hurts!” She wanted to reach for her left leg, but the pain in her shoulders held her back.
“Louie.” Cadence pointed at the dog bed. “Go!” Louie crept backward an inch at a time fighting his instinct to protect. His long ears stayed flattened back on his gleaming black head and his eyes trained on Joel without a flinch.
Joel eyed Louie and stepped into the room. “May I suggest we get you checked out?”
Mara dragged in another breath. “Who are you?” Her lips trembled and her heart fluttered out of control.
“I’m Joel, your new consultant from Business Mentors, Inc. I’m replacing Rich.” He put a file down on her worktable. “I really think we ought to get you to the ER” He moved closer towards Mara and knelt down at her level.
“I don’t need—”
“Mom, you don’t look good at all. I think he’s right. You’re like, white as your shirt.”
But she could ask the doctor to check her heart. No, that’s silly. At thirty-nine, she probably just had a bad case of the flu. Mara’s arm throbbed with sharp jabs, her neck and jaw muscles clenched tight. She’d probably sprained her shoulder now, too.
Exhausted she bit out, “Fine, fine. I probably need an antibiotic or something.” Another shiver shot through her. “I’m sure it’s the flu. I have the chills and ache all over.” Mara rubbed her left arm.
Joel moved in to Mara’s side to help her stand. Together both Cadence and Joel lifted Mara from the floor.
“Ow, ow! I can’t—” Mara felt herself swing up. Her head lolled back from the motion.
“I’ve got you. You can trust me.” He glanced over at her daughter. “Cadence, would you grab a blanket for her and let’s go.” Joel tipped his head toward the door. “We’ll take my car so you can help your mom if she needs it.”
“I don’t need—”
“Really?” Joel’s blue eyes captured hers again. “Can you walk?”
A shooting pain screeched through her left side.
Posted by Bonnie S. Calhoun at 10:52 PM
Sunday, April 14, 2013
San Francisco, California
"In this town, Sarah Jane, a man’s worth is calculated in dollars and cents. Measured by what he has to show for himself . . .” Sarah Whittier clasped her hat against the stiff summer wind and stared up at the four-story building on Montgomery Street, the soaring stone facade and row upon row of arched windows impressive, daunting. Worth a great deal of dollars and cents—a concrete manifestation of Josiah Cady’s oft-repeated saying. Sarah refused, however, to be intimidated by the carved limestone and the windows reflecting the fog-laced California sky. Even though, before Josiah left her a house and a chance, she had once been worth not much more than a plugged nickel.
Sarah sucked in a breath, as deep as her corset would allow, and returned her gaze to the real estate agency’s front door, housed smack-dab in the middle of the courses of gleaming stone. This morning marked the third time she’d come by. Mr. Pomroy would be unhappy to see her again, but she had to se- cure the lease on the Sansome Street storefront. It was the per- fect space for her design studio, and she had promised the girls she would get that lease no matter what. For them, she would work until she dropped and defy the most stubborn man she’d met in California. Opening the shop so each of the girls could have a real chance at a decent future had become her mission. Her sole purpose: to take care of them. They were her family now, after the one she’d been born into had tossed her onto the street.
Mistakes—her terrible mistakes—had proven awfully hard to forgive.
“You goin’ in?” A man from the adjacent business, an insur- ance agency, had come on to the sidewalk to smirk at her. “Or you just gonna stand there and stare at the front door?"
Sarah gave him a tight-lipped smile. “I am going in.” Not that it is any of your business what I do.
His smirk broadened. “I’ve found applying your hand to the doorknob helps.”
“Thanks ever so much.”
The glass in the door rattled when she closed it firmly behind her, drawing a scowl from one of the clerks occupying the front office of Pomroy Real Estate Associates.
“Miss Whittier.” He squinted, his long nose crinkling. “Come to see Mr. Pomroy again?”
The low hum of male voices swelled and chair casters squealed as the men turned to stare, abandoning any pretense of working. Cigarettes smoldered forgotten in fingers; fountain pens halted mid-sentence; ledger pages ceased being flipped. The sandy- blond fellow perched on a stool near the tall windows—if she continued to come here daily, she’d probably learn his name and everyone else’s—elbowed the man seated at his left. They guf- fawed loud enough for Sarah to hear. She ignored them.
“I have an eleven o’clock appointment,” she said.
The clerk with the long nose consulted the logbook atop his desk. “Somehow, you do.”
“Miss Whittier.” Ambrose Pomroy’s voice boomed. He strode through the crowded real estate office, weaving his way between the cluttered desks arrayed like rows of produce wagons at a country market, jostling for prime space. “Here you are once more.”
He made her arrival sound like a visitation of the plague.
“I’ve secured a loan from Mr. Theodore Samuelson. For five hundred dollars.” She showed him the note from Lottie’s father that had delivered the news. Charlotte Samuelson—excellent business partner, better friend—had come through as promised. “And more importantly, I finally have a buyer interested in the property in Placerville that Josiah left to me. It will provide plen- ty of cash to cover my business expenses for several months.”
Mr. Pomroy inspected the letter and then folded his arms. He had the air of a man who was used to assessing, and right then he was assessing her. “You have been hard at work.”
“You said you needed me to provide proof that my studio will have a sound footing, and I have.”
“What you should have done, Miss Whittier, is obtain a part- ner with experience managing a business.” Mr. Pomroy punctu- ated his statement with an arch of his graying right eyebrow. “That store space is a valuable piece of property. I want the right tenant.”
“I am the right tenant.”
“You are a potential tenant. Whether or not you are the right
tenant remains to be determined.”
“Mr. Pomroy,” she said, fixing him with the steely gaze she had taught herself after hours practicing in front of a mirror, “you seem to be under the impression I am going to leave this office to- day without a rental contract. Well, I can tell you this time I—”
He didn’t wait for the rest of Sarah’s sentence. Mr. Pomroy turned on his heel and marched back the way he’d come. Sarah set her chin and chased after him, her half boots tattooing a beat on the polished oak floor.
“Mr. Pomroy,” she called, clutching at the skirts of her striped amber twill dress to keep from tripping on the hem, “you must listen to me.”
He serpentined between stools and trash cans and an errant filing cabinet, the tail of his frock coat flapping against his legs. “I have listened.”
“I am not going to give up today. I promise you.”
A clerk sniggered openly as Sarah passed, affirming that she looked ridiculous, pursuing Mr. Pomroy like a street urchin.
“Turner, back to work,” Mr. Pomroy snapped at the man. “We are trying to make money here, not offer commentary on our clients.”
Sarah’s bustle brushed against the side of a desk, scattering pa- pers and causing another of Mr. Pomroy’s employees to grumble a complaint about women and their proper place. “Might we dis- cuss this matter in private?” she asked. Might we sit down?
“A private discussion will not reduce my concerns about your business venture.” He paused in an aisle and leaned close to emphasize his point, near enough that she could smell the lemon-clove astringency of mouthwash on his breath. “A cus- tom artwork studio run by immigrant women? What do illiter- ate seamstresses and coarse factory girls know about operating a lithograph press or coloring photographs, balancing the books?”
“As I explained yesterday, they will know everything they need to know by the time I have finished training them. They all possess the necessary talent or else I wouldn’t have taken them
on. I’m satisfied we’ll be successful.”
“Be honest with yourself, Miss Whittier,” he said bluntly. “Your enterprise is more of a charity than a business. If you are so keen to have a job, then teach young ladies—ones able to pay a fee—how to paint. A more genteel and respectable occupation than this folly.”
“Mr. Samuelson and the others”—she wished there were more than one or two “others” but she wouldn’t mention that now— “who have offered to support my shop don’t seem to think my artwork studio is a charity.”
“I would not be so certain about their opinions, if I were you.”
He started walking again, leaving the open floor area to stride down a hallway.
Sarah sprinted after him. “My girls need the good jobs this shop will provide them, Mr. Pomroy,” she persisted as sweat col- lected beneath her collar. “I can’t let them down.”
“Your girls are street savvy. They will survive. Their kind do.” Sarah halted. Survive? Would they? Would I have survived, if it weren’t for Josiah? She’d come frighteningly close to paying a ter- rible price for her misdeeds and had far more in common with her girls than Mr. Pomroy need ever know. If he ever did find out
. . . a shudder rolled across Sarah’s shoulders.
“I want those girls to do more than survive. I want them to thrive,” she said to his retreating back. “I don’t know how you can be so indifferent to Josiah’s wishes. You know he wanted this for me. You told him before he died that you would help.”
“Josiah Cady was too sentimental.”
The offhand criticism bit, sharp as a wasp sting. “Is that what you’ve been thinking all along? All these days I’ve been coming here, urging you to lease me that storefront, you’ve been think- ing Josiah was simply overly sentimental? I thought you were his friend.”
He stopped and faced her. Red blotched his neck above his collar.
“It is precisely because we were friends that I am working so hard—unsuccessfully—to convince you to see sense, Miss Whittier, despite what I may or may not have said to Josiah,” he answered. “If those men do not come through with their offers of money and your shop fails, think how that will crush those girls of yours. Young women to whom you’ve promised a great deal. Are you willing to bear their disappointment and upset?”
He was right; they would be crushed and might blame her. She wouldn’t let it happen, though.
“There’s no need to worry, because I will not permit the shop
to fail.” Sarah closed the gap between them and peered into his face. He had to understand. He had to see. “I don’t care what you said about Josiah—he wasn’t being sentimental when he encour- aged me. He was shrewd and you know it.”
“You are very determined.”
“If I intend to be a success, I have to be.”
“Which is why Josiah Cady took to you like a tick to a dog, Miss Whittier.” He softened the assessment with a hasty smile that twitched his mustache.
A spark of hope flickered. “Take a chance with me, Mr. Pom- roy. Six months. Lease me the space for six months, and I will prove to you my shop is a viable business.”
She saw the retreat in his eyes. Her hope bloomed into a flame. He was going to concede; she was going to win.
Sighing, Mr. Pomroy opened the nearest door. His personal office sat hushed in the dim morning sunlight, exhaling the scent of cigars and leather chairs, beeswax polish. “The paperwork is on the desk. Allow me to fill in the necessary details and the shop is yours. For six months.”
The strain she had lived with for weeks, and longer, released from Sarah’s shoulders like a watch spring uncoiling. “Thank you. You won’t regret your decision.”
Sarah swept past her new landlord. After he modified the rental agreement to include her name and the length of the lease, she signed both copies, folding one carefully and tucking it into her reticule.
“Here is the first month’s rent,” she said, handing him the money. Eighty-five dollars. An unimaginable sum not so many years ago.
“You will have a one-week grace period for a missed rental payment, with a fifteen-percent penalty fee. Miss that payment and you will be evicted from the premises,” Mr. Pomroy said, kneeing aside his rolling chair so he could access the center desk drawer. He glanced at her. “You do trust these girls you’ve hired, correct? They are not going to do anything to, shall we say, cast you or your business in a bad light?”
“They may have made bad choices in their pasts, Mr. Pomroy, but I assure you, that is behind them.”
“Good, because after the last disgraceful tenant we had in that space, my partners and I would prefer not to discover the name of a client in the newspapers again.”
“You will not have any trouble from us.” She extended a gloved hand, palm up. She was thankful it didn’t shake. How- ever, she had practiced forgetting her transgressions far longer than she’d practiced her steely-eyed gaze. “So if everything is in order, might I have the keys to the shop?”
“I believe so.” He slid open the drawer and slipped his copy of the paperwork inside. From the same drawer, he extracted two sets of iron keys.
“Front door. Alley door,” he said, identifying each key with a flick of his forefinger. “The next rent payment is due on the twenty-fifth.”
He dropped the keys into her hand. They were heavy and re- assuringly solid, and she closed her fingers tightly around them. “You will see my check on the twenty-fourth. Good morning, Mr. Pomroy. And thank you again.”
“Prove me wrong to worry, Miss Whittier.”
“I shall,” she answered.
Sarah rushed out of the office, past the prying stares of Mr. Pomroy’s clerks, down the narrow hallway. Grinning, she burst through the front door of the building, into the din of Montgom- ery Street. She had done it. She had persisted and won.
You always believed I would, Josiah. Even when I didn’t believe it myself.
While pedestrians rushed by, Sarah gripped her reticule tightly and breathed in the energy of the city. Inhaled the aromas she so strongly associated with San Francisco—the iodine tang of the bay and the metallic sharpness of factory smoke and steam engines, the acrid reek of horse manure and construction dust. The sweet spiciness of food intermingling with the lye from laundries in the Chinese quarter two blocks distant. The warm yeastiness of a bakery.
She stepped back as a flock of tourists scuttled up the sidewalk, bound for the sights of Chinatown with a policeman as guard, eager to peep at vivid red joss houses and opium dens. If he took them farther north, they could venture into the saloons of the Barbary Coast, jangling with piano music and drunken laughter. Sarah watched them disappear around the corner and wondered if they felt the city’s vibrancy too. If they could sense its limit- less possibilities, where people from every walk of life scraped and struggled to be better than they were before they arrived. To become someone new, just like she had done.
“Miss Sarah!” Minnie Tobin hurried along the asphaltum sidewalk, her faded gray dress kicking wide, brown curls bounc- ing beneath her straw bonnet. “Have you done it?”
“Minnie, how did you manage to get here?” She was the first young woman Sarah had plucked from the streets, the ragged daughter of a drunken grocer, a girl with a cheerful disposition, enviable spunk, and a gift for painting. Her father had plans to marry her off to his brutish best friend, consigning her to a life not much better than slavery. But not if Sarah had anything to say about it. “Your father allowed you to leave the grocery early?”
“I snuck out.” Minnie’s grin dimpled her cheeks. “I had to know if we’d got the shop. I couldn’t concentrate on stacking tins of meat, knowing you were down here today, fighting for us.”
“Here is your answer.” Sarah held out the two sets of keys and jingled them. “We have the shop.”
“Oh, thank goodness!” Minnie leaped into Sarah’s arms and hugged her tight, knocking her hat askew. “That’s wonderful!”
“It is wonderful, and an incredible relief.” Sarah extricated herself from Minnie’s grasp and dropped the keys into her reticule. “What do you say . . . chocolate macaroons from Engel- berg’s Bakery as a treat?”
“It’ll have to be quick, if I’m to make it back to the grocery before my pa returns from his lunch. Don’t want him to find me gone.” Minnie’s voice conveyed her dread.
“Then quick it shall be.”
Buoyant, Sarah planted one hand atop her hat, clutched Min- nie’s arm with the other, and strutted down Montgomery.
“Miss Charlotte will be pleased about the shop,” Minnie said as they paused at the intersection, waiting for a cable car to col- lect its passengers and make the turn, clearing the roadway.
“Lottie never doubted I would be able to convince Mr. Pomroy to lease us the space.” But then Lottie had endless faith, far more than Sarah could ever claim. Enough to convince her father to invest in the shop against his lawyer’s wary nature.
“I never doubted, either, Miss Sarah,” said Minnie, her nut- brown eyes full of trust.
Sarah’s heart constricted. I will never let these girls down. Not a one. “Thank you.”
“ ’Welcome, miss,” Minnie replied with a dimpled smile. “What’s next?”
“Tomorrow I plan to go to the storefront and make a list of any necessary repairs.” A lengthy list already existed in her head, but she had been too superstitious to commit it to paper. “Then I’ll make down payments on the equipment we need—first and foremost the lithograph press—take you and the others to see the space, and begin tidying and organizing. In a week, the first of our supplies should arrive. We can start to move in then.”
“That’s so exciting, I think I’m gonna burst!”
“Please don’t, because I need you whole,” Sarah teased.
The cable car clanged up the road, and they hurried across the cobbles.
“I predict Whittier and Company Custom Design Studio will be a roaring success,” Minnie proclaimed with a dramatic wave of her forefinger. “Because if anyone can do it, you can, Miss
“If anyone can do it, we can.” Sarah squeezed the girl’s arm. “Remember that.”
Minnie giggled and Sarah joined in, the sound of their care- free laughter snatched by the breeze swirling along the street, carried off with the fog lifting into the blue, blue skies. Their spirits lighter than a bubble floating.
And hopefully not, thought Sarah with a shiver, just as fragile.
Posted by Bonnie S. Calhoun at 11:22 PM