Authors: Jessica Topper
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
LOUDER THAN LOVE
An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author
InterMix eBook edition / September 2013
Copyright © 2013 by Jessica Topper.
“Three is a Magic Number” by Robert L. Dorough. © American Broadcasting Music, Inc. Used with permission.
“Catwings” © 1987 by Ursula K. Le Guin. Reprinted by permission of Orchard Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.
“maggie and milly and molly and may” by E.E. Cummings. © 1994 by Richard S. Kennedy Poems by E.E. Cummings.
“Measures”, “Habit”, “Funeral”, “Syndrome Dreamer”, “Censured” © 2013 by Stephany Sofia.
“Always a Playground Instructor” by Jim Morrison from The
American Night: The Writings of Jim Morrison Volume 2
© 1991 by Vintage Books.
"Wind Cries Mary (The)" by Jimi Hendrix. © 1967 by Experience Hendrix, LLC.
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For Bruce, because I once told him I would.
“I’m telling you, you
to get rid of that bed.”
“Why? It’s a perfectly good bed.”
I watched as Marissa repeatedly slapped two packets of sugar against her palm, like a cop beating the confession out of her suspect—me.
“Look, I totally respect your memories with Pete and all. But you should take into consideration the possibility of some bad mojo hanging around your marriage bed should you decide to bring someone else into it.”
Her frosty manicured nails hovered over her coffee like it was a steaming cauldron. Any moment I expected an incantation to brew forth from her lips, meant to make me forget my broken heart. Or to at least get me laid for the first time since changing my area code from 212 to 914.
“It’s been almost four years, Tree. And you want to move forward,” Liz added. She detached the crumbly streusel, my favorite part of the coffee cake, from her slice and offered it in consolation.
I hastily sipped my latte, earning a scalded tongue to go along with the aforementioned broken heart. “So what should I do with it? The bed?”
“You could donate it,” Karen suggested. “St. Greg’s is having a rummage sale after Easter.” She gave me an encouraging smile, quickly looking to the others for backup.
Recently established in Lauder Lake with her shiny new family in their shiny new eco-friendly house, Karen was never quite sure how to blend in with my high school posse. Her knowledge of my situation was understandably less than that of my lifelong girlfriends. Not that I held it against her, of course. We met after Abbey and I had fled Manhattan, the wreck still rubbing me raw each waking morning and spurring me on to put some miles between us and the pain.
Home could not be where Pete had existed one day and not the next. So the place where I had existed before I met Pete became home once more.
“I suppose that’s a good plan,” I managed. The steam arm on the espresso machine behind me hissed and sighed.
Marissa gave me the sympathetic-best-friend-of-the-poor-widow nod as the other girls murmured their agreement; my very own Greek chorus clad in Lucky Brand jeans.
I turned and glanced out the window of Starbucks. It was odd to see almost the exact same view of the Main Street from my youth. Like walking through a dream, where familiar things are altered by the tiniest tweaks.
There was the hardware store, the post office, my dad’s antique shop. The flavor of the day, dime-a-dozen coffee shop we were now sitting in had once been Colby’s Five and Dime Store. Marissa and I used to spend our hard-earned allowances there on Lemonheads and Cow Tales when we were nine; it was where we had perfected our methods of shoplifting chocolate bars at age eleven.
“I’ll bet Leanna can come help. Ed’s got that truck.” Marissa threaded her arm through the maze of cardboard cups and squeezed my hand.
“Where is she today?” Karen asked.
“Therapy,” I explained. “Ed finally agreed to go with her.”
Liz scraped her chair closer. “I’ll help feather your new love nest.” She gave my shoulder a bump. “You need a single chick’s eye, not these yapping yentas trying to Martha Stewart you to death.”
“Tree doesn’t need a love nest, Liz. She needs a sanctuary,” Marissa insisted. “Just a peaceful place for herself to enjoy and maybe . . . JUST maybe . . . a certain blond-haired, hazel-eyed ex-cornerback might coming knocking.” She let her great dark Sophia Loren bedroom eyes emphasize her point with a blink and a wink.
I laughed. “Give it a rest, Falzone!”
Marissa’s brain had gone to mush from watching too many sappy Lifetime original movies and saw my bliss in the form of Grant Overhill, my first serious crush (for two long years) and my first steady boyfriend (for two short months) in the ninth grade. He also happened to be the man who took over my family’s antique business when my dad retired five years ago. And he was single at the moment. It was all too much for Marissa to bear; she loved to torture me with the prospect, and I, in turn, loved to drive her nuts with my indifference. Not my type. Sloppy kisser. (Or at least he was at fifteen.) Sort of smelled like my dad, now that he worked in the shop. Like wood and old books. Yick.
“Oooh, I saw him in Wild Oats the other day, he’s a hottie,” Karen enthused. “He helped me get a box of quinoa off the shelf from the tippy-top.”
“Trust me, Karen. He’s what we called a poster boy in high school. Nice to look at, but once he opens his mouth . . . forget it,” Liz said, allowing her tongue to half loll out of her mouth and her eyes to glaze over for emphasis. She had the most amazing eyes, ever-changing in their color depending on her mood, like those cheap rings we all loved to wear in junior high. Today they were a glinting, mischievous green.
“You weren’t even in the same grade as us!” Marissa pointed out. “Plus you were too busy following Tree’s brother, Kevin, around like a puppy dog to
Liz shrugged and smiled in dreamy defeat. She hadn’t been the only one: Kev had had a lot of conquests in high school, probably due to the fact he was the only cute boy who dared take home economics three years in a row. My brother could bake the pants off Betty Crocker . . . and he sweet-talked them off most any girl at Lauder High.
“Anyway, one step at a time for this one.” Marissa patted my head like I was one of her Jack Russell terriers. “First the bed . . . then the
.” This made everyone giggle, since Marissa still possessed the thick accent she arrived with back in the third grade. Her family had moved upstate that year from Yonkers, which we all considered a very exotic, dangerous, and faraway place at the time.
“So when are you going to find some bling-bling for me, Mariss?” Liz wanted to know. “I’ve been single since . . .” She drained her cup and licked the foam off the brim. “. . . before coffee cost $4.85 a cup.”
“Not my jurisdiction, dear. Move back to the ’burbs and then we can talk about it.”
Liz raised her eyebrows under her fiery red bangs. She was 100 percent Irish, yet her hair color was 100 percent Goldwell Red. She was one of those creamy-skinned, black-haired Irish girls, but had begun hitting the dye bottle in college. It suited her devilish personality, a trait we’d all come to know and love over the years.
“It’s been fun, ladies. But I have to be on the eleven forty-five back to town. The Naked Bagel cannot run itself.” Liz’s bakery was a little piece of heaven with a hole in it. Yum. One of approximately fifteen things I keenly missed about weekends living in Manhattan. Buying the Sunday
New York Times
on Saturday evening was another. Brunches with all-you-can-drink mimosas, lounging in Sheep Meadow reading the Style section while Pete lay with his head on my lap working on the crossword puzzle . . . Okay, I will stop there for now.
“Thanks for coming, I know it’s a hike for you.” I embraced Liz and got the ball rolling on the comprehensive, caffeinated hug exchange.
We had started our Wednesday coffee ritual last year, when Abbey and Marissa’s youngest, Brina, began preschool. LakeShore Montessori encourages sending even the youngest children to school for a few hours every weekday, with the belief that they should experience the consistency of returning to the same environment. Lord knows Abbey needs some consistency in her days, other than my muttering to myself around the house and burning her breakfast waffles. And really, the “me” time had been great for all of us. Liz grumbled sometimes about schlepping, but we knew even she looked forward to shedding her tough city shell, if only for an hour of coffee and a short snooze on the Metro-North.
“So . . .” Marissa began as we got into my Mini Cooper parked out back. “Figure out what you’re going to do for that children’s library program yet?”
Our tiny town branch had an active Friends of the Library volunteer group. A far cry from the fast-paced research library I had managed in the city, but it had its moments. The group had fund-raised quite a bit of money with an auction last fall, and it had been allocated in many directions: collection development, new shelving, programming. I had come up with the bright idea of hosting a music program for children, which included busing in kids with autism from the local therapeutic day school in White Plains. My plan was to have a children’s musician come perform and give the kids a chance to try out some instruments.
“Actually, yes. I believe I’ve had a Holy Grail moment.” I slapped a CD into Marissa’s hand and steered us out of the lot.
“Holy . . . Is this that dude, the Kitty guy? Who Abbey loves?” She suspended the cracked jewel case between her polished talons for inspection. It contained no liner notes or cover art. But the disc itself was stamped
SONGS FOR NATALIE—ADRIAN GRAVES
, along with a disclaimer notice:
FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY—NOT FOR SALE.
“Pretty sure it’s the same guy.”
Abbey’s all-time favorite PBS cartoon,
Maxwell MacGillikitty, Feline Private Eye
, was slightly insipid to anyone over age six, but had a wildly catchy theme song performed by the aforementioned Adrian Graves. Abbey was singing it from breakfast to bath time for months before it dawned on me to look into finding other works by the same musician. A surprisingly difficult endeavor, despite my superpowered librarian research skills. It was as if the man didn’t really exist. Or had a really crappy publicist. He just had no paper trail. Until now.
“Where the hell did you find him?”
“Well, I haven’t found
yet. But that came from the Bruised Apple.”
The Bruised Apple bookstore was one of my favorite places on earth. Most librarians would probably run screaming from the place, as the thousands of used books and CDs that filled the store were arranged by categories in handwritten notes and taped-on labels. But I adored it. It reminded me of being a kid in my dad’s antique shop after school. I loved how the old bookshop floors creaked when you walked on them and how every available inch of wall space was covered with flyers from local artists and musicians.
Marissa snorted. “I don’t know how you could find anything in that mess.”
I had almost flipped past the disc in my haste, looking for something I so desperately wanted to exist but was not sure what shape or form the mirage would actually take. It turned out there was a whole case of them in the store’s back room. “From the warehouse of that CD manufacturing plant near Nyack,” the owner had informed me. “They bring us tons of music, mostly obscure stuff. Probably bands don’t pay their bills, or never pick the product up. Just put one of these out though, to see if it would sell. Never heard of him.”
Marissa slid the CD into the car stereo. “Ah, ‘The Cat Came Back,’ good choice.”
“Go to the next track.”
“Oh my God, ‘Señor Don Gato’! Remember singing that song every year at summer camp?
Meow, meow, meow.
” She laughed.
“You’ve got to hear this, he sings it so adorably!” I increased the volume and sang along.
“There was not a sweeter kitty, meow, meow, meow, in the country or the city . . .”
“If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you have a crush on Señor Graves,” Marissa teased. When I didn’t respond in .02 seconds, she shrieked, “My God, you do!”
“Come on, I don’t even know what he looks like—”
“—or anything about him.”
“Very funny. Although I have to say, his voice is kinda sexy.” It had a gravelly undertone, different from the bulk of syrupy-sweet kids’ music out there. And there was an energy, like he really believed in the power and magic of music and wasn’t just out to collect a paycheck.
“And I’d say there is something sexy about a man who can entertain your kid for hours. I’m telling you,” Marissa added, “even that purple dinosaur gets me—”
“DON’T go there.”
She laughed. “He’s really got a thing for cats, huh?”
“Seems to be the theme of the album.” I didn’t tell her I bought the whole case. I couldn’t even tell myself why I did. “But now . . . to find the man behind the album.” The box had a shipping label bound for Burning Barn Studios, LLC. It was the only tangible clue I had.
“I am confident you will find him. You are like a dog with a chew toy when it comes to that stuff. You won’t let it go.”
“At the rate I’m going, we’ll probably end up with that clown Karen hired for Jasper’s birthday party last October.”
“The one that scared the crap out of the kids? God forbid!”
“He blows a mean balloon animal.”
Marissa chuckled, reaching into her pocket. “Want one?” She proffered up a dark chocolate–covered graham cracker from a cellophane pack of two.
“Tell me you didn’t swipe those from Starbucks!” I exclaimed, pulling into her driveway.
She shrugged unapologetically. “For old times’ sake.”
We dissolved into giggles and had our quick chocolate fix.
“Nah, I am going to attempt to unpack some . . . stuff.”
“No rush, you’ve only been back for, what?
years?” She blew a kiss through the window at me to soften her wisecrack.
Backing out, I pondered the fate of Don Gato and the cat that came back the very next day. And how much lighter you would take life if you knew you had nine of them.