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Authors: Stef Ann Holm

Leaving Normal (6 page)

BOOK: Leaving Normal
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Tony recalled the fecund odor of cats in the dingy house, only able to see as far as the beam of his flashlight stretched. Mixed-breed cats. Two of them meowed at the blue-black corpse sitting upright on the sofa. One more day and the cats probably would have got to her.

"No," he said at length. "Nothing hard to deal with."

"You hear about terrible accidents at this time of year." Natalie stuffed her hands into her coat pockets. As she breathed, tiny clouds of misty air left her pale lips.

He completed the task, then rested the shovel against the wall of her garage. He ran cold fingers through his short, damp hair. He'd worked up a light sweat. As he'd been standing in only a long-sleeved T-shirt, his skin was hot.

"Thank you so much for the help." She seemed calmer, a little less keyed up. "And please, come by Hat and Garden anytime."

"Tony!" A little girl's voice called from across the street.

Parker stood hi the front of their house wearing a coat and snow boots, her backpack on her shoulders.

"Hey, Parker."

She had her hair in pigtails, the blond strands appearing silky and curled. "Look at my snowman."

He hadn't noticed it when he'd pulled into the driveway. His gaze was redirected to the lopsided snowman in the yard. It wasn't very tall. Patches of dormant grass were visible where she'd rolled the large ball of snow to make the body. She'd decorated it with a scarf, a carrot and what looked to be some charcoal briquettes for the eyes.

"Come see it, Tony."

"Okay. I'll be right there."

"You better go," Natalie hastened to say. "I shouldn't have taken up your time."

"Hey, don't apologize. I was happy to help." He gave her a smile, one that he knew would be contagious. She returned the smile just as he knew she would.

Tony crossed the street, heading toward Parker, who was fixing the scarf on the snowman. Kim stood in the doorway wearing a pair of sweats and an oversize shirt—one of his. He loved the look of her hair, tousled and sleep-messed. The corner of her mouth turned up, a half effort that said she was only half-awake.

In that moment, he realized with a certain clarity that he'd missed his wife last night. Missed sleeping with her.

As soon as they got Parker off to school, he was going to show her just how much she meant to him.

"Who is that man?" Sarah questioned from behind the sales counter. "This is the third time he's been in the shop in the last three weeks and each time, he stares at you."

Natalie gave the man a cursory look. About fifteen feet away, he stood by a rack of greeting cards; their eyes met, and he quickly looked down with a shy smile.

She was assailed by a strange sense of familiarity and got the vague impression she knew him but couldn't remember from where.

He was tall, broad in the shoulders in his suit, and his brown hair was cut short and neat. His facial features were masculine; he had a mustache and his lips were full.

"I haven't noticed him in here before," Natalie replied. Which was the truth. She'd been running on overload for the past three weeks since Hat and Garden had opened. Sales were doing well. She had a steady stream of customers and Christmas was mere days away.

Sarah put her hands on her hips. "I think you should say hello to him. Ask him if he needs any help." Natalie frowned. While she normally had no prob-lems with that, it was Sarah who was outgoing enough for the both of them and she always made it a point to greet everyone with a smile and offer of assistance. It was Natalie who preferred to be in the flower shed out back, making the arrangements.

The shed was an old garage they'd converted into a workstation. All the fresh flowers were stored in a large refrigerated unit, plus there was a long bench that had every color of ribbon imaginable on various spools; on a shelf below were vases of all sizes. Baskets, too. Floral tape, putty and foam to create stellar arrangements. Natalie loved the creative end of owning her own business. The paperwork end left her less than enchanted, but it was all part of proprietorship.

She'd hired a young clerk, Meagan, to help Sarah inside the shop. A male student, Carl Brewster, who went to Boise State University part-time, made deliveries in the mornings, and on Friday and Saturday afternoons, her dad came in and drove the delivery van. Sarah worked several days a week at the counter, and a few times Steve brought BreeAnn and Sydney after school to help with inventory. It was a good blend of people who were all helping to make the flower shop a success.

"I have to look at some receipts in my office," Natalie countered, not in the mood to spar with Sarah. Sometimes her sister's romantic energy and enthusiasm for finding Natalie a boyfriend got on her nerves.

"You do not. You just don't want to talk to him."

"I have nothing to say to him. He clearly knows what he wants. A greeting card. Let him pick it out himself—sentiments are very personal and I'm sure he has something in mind for whatever the occasion is."

"He doesn't want a greeting card," Sarah insisted. "He's looking at you."

Natalie glanced toward the man once again and caught him staring. She straightened, smoothed her hands down the front of her green apron and said, "Fine. I'll go talk to him."

Her acquiescence was more out of curiosity than to quiet her sister.

Weaving her way around the coffee-cup display, Natalie approached him.

"Hi. Is there something I can help you find?"

"You don't remember me, do you?" His voice was deep, resonant.

Just then she knew she knew him but couldn't quite place how.

She caught a hint of nice cologne surrounding him. Dark in color, his eyes connected with hers. "You used to work at Blooming Floral."

"Yes…I did."

And in that instant, she knew. She'd done the floral arrangements for his wife's funeral about three years ago.

His name was on the edge of her mind. She struggled a moment, then uttered, "Jonathon Falco?'

He nodded, a slow and sad acknowledgment. Sympathy came to her, full-blown, as if he had just buried his wife yesterday.

"I hope you've been doing all right," she said, the sentiment seeming so mechanical.

"We're getting along pretty well these days. My sons are playing in home games tonight at two different schools and I'm spread thin. These are the times I wish I had a clone." The pleasant, albeit stressed, laugh was added to the latter.

Natalie smiled. "Well, is there anything I can do to help you on your way?"

He grew quiet, thoughtful. "Actually, I was wondering if you were still married. I noticed you aren't wearing a ring anymore."

"Oh…" Automatically, she gazed at her left hand. "I'm divorced."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. It's fine. For the best," she hastened to add.

"Well, good. Then I was hoping you'd join me for dinner one evening."

Taking a moment to let him continue, she regarded him.

"I know you probably get asked out a lot, and you don't know me," he went on. "But the first time I came in, I recognized you and I've come back a few times now just to buy some things I don't really need."

His confession warmed her heart, made her smile widen.

"I realize it's the holidays and everyone's busy," he added. "But I'd really like to take you out to dinner."

Natalie suddenly felt nervous, noticing he looked at her with more than casual interest. How long had it been since a man had caught her attention? Jonathon was nice-looking, pleasant to talk with, and he was a widower. They were a different breed. No baggage, no ex-wife. He'd had a good marriage and that was a plus.

Why, then, didn't she just accept?

"I think your offer is very generous, Jonathon, but you're right about the holidays. I just opened the store and my daughter's coming home in a few days and she'll be with me through the holidays."

He nodded, shrugged. "I understand about family." In a voice that was both soft, yet firm, he added, "Maybe you can find the time after the first of the year. I'd really like to take you out—if you're not seeing anyone."

For the briefest of instants, Tony Cruz's face flashed before her. It was utterly ludicrous that she'd even think about him right now.

"No, I'm not seeing anyone. I've just been too busy."

"Then it'll do you good to have a relaxing dinner. After the first, can I call you?"

She licked her dry lips and, unbidden, glanced over her shoulder at Sarah, who was fixated on them. "All right." She slipped a hand into her apron pocket, and pulled oat a Hat and Garden business card. "You can get hold of me here."

"Thanks, Natalie. I'll look forward to it." He pocketed the card. "I hope you have a merry Christmas."

"Thank you. Same to you."

He left and Natalie returned to the cash-register counter, raising her hand to silence Sarah before she could open her mouth. "I really am busy and I really might go out to dinner with him and I don't need any input. I have to check on Dad. I sent him out on deliveries over an hour ago and I see he hasn't returned, so honestly, Sarah, I don't need to hear whatever it is you want to say."

Sarah's mouth dropped open, then snapped closed. A few seconds later, she gave Natalie a scowl. "I was only going to say that we're all out of gingerbread-man cookies for the tea cart and I'll go get some more."

"Hmm," Natalie responded, more of a hum than a reply. A quick glance to the tea cart with its carafe of spiced apple cider and its silver tray empty of shaped-iced cookies, Natalie bit back anything further she would have said.

Indeed, they were out of gingerbread men.

But she was quite certain Sarah would have been mentioning a different sort of "man" had she been given the chance.

* * *

Fred Miller drove the 1997 Ford Econoline van with
Hat and Garden
scripted in pink across the side. The big gas guzzler was filled with flower arrangements, and the interior air was perfumed like a hothouse.

Absently, he sniffed his shirtsleeve and wondered if he smelled like flowers. Hard to say. He detected a hint of starch from the dry cleaners where he had his shirt laundered.

A Big Gulp sat in the drinks console, and as Fred turned the steering wheel, crushed ice inside the cup sloshed up against the lid. Dr Pepper was a second choice over what he really would have liked to be drinking. He wished he had been sent in the direction of Target; he would've made a quick pit stop for a white-cherry slushy, but Natalie had him delivering to southeast Boise.

Glancing at the road map he'd printed from Natalie's computer, he checked the cross streets, signaled and proceeded. The subdivision was fairly new, kept up nicely but didn't have mature trees. A yard needed a bunch of mature trees in order to attract squirrels.

Squirrels were God's gift to the retired.

At sixty-one years old, he was amazed by how much he depended on those squirrels to entertain him. He had a big yard up on the Boise bench and he could sit out there for hours and watch them. His favorite thing to view was when they'd lift the lid off the peanut box and take a nut out. He had often wondered how they'd figured that out. How did they know that the lid could lift up? There were bite marks on it, little tooth scratches so, at one time, they had thought to gnaw their way through the wood. Then one of them must have been smart enough to figure out that the lid came up. It was something that would remain a mystery to him.

Hell, he had time to figure it out. He was in no hurry.

He'd rushed all his life delivering mail. It was always hurry up and go. Now that he'd been retired, he did everything slow. He got up in the morning slow, he read the paper slow, he dressed slow, he drank his coffee slow, he ate his lunch slow… Everything he could do, he savored and he enjoyed.

Making flower deliveries for Natalie wasn't a full-time job and, after Christmas, he probably wouldn't be doing it as much. He was bothered by the fact that his daughter insisted on paying him. He would have helped her out for nothing.

While working for her got him out of the house, he liked his off-days, when he could take his time with all that he had to do.

Scanning the mailboxes for the correct address number, he pulled over to the curb. Shifting the gear column into Park, he pressed down on the brake. This van was a fuel monster compared to his Hyundai Elantra with its sporty sunroof.

He loved his car.

AARP said that when a man retired he needed to trade up to one of those big luxury cars. To hell with that. He wasn't a Cadillac kind of guy. Not even a Buick Century kind of guy. An economy car did him just fine, although there were those rare occasions when he caught himself getting in on the wrong side to operate it. Old habits died hard, and the older he got the more he regressed to the old days. He'd used the passenger side for so many years to operate a government Jeep, he sometimes forgot the right way to start up the Elantra. And damn if it didn't get his Dutch up when he did that.

Stepping out of the van, he ambled to the back, opened the door and got the iris arrangement. The thick cluster of flowers were a deep purple-blue with yellow eyes. The card read:

 

BOOK: Leaving Normal
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