Authors: Louise Shaffer
Tags: #Contemporary Women, #Sagas, #Family Life, #General, #Fiction
AUREL'S DESTINATION WAS
a shopping plaza in Buckhead where Peggy had once taken her for what she called
a girls' lunch
. Laurel parked in a landscaped lot and walked through a main door worthy of Disney's Magic Kingdom. There were two floors of classy stores jammed together side by side, one shiny window after another, all full of expensive stuff glittering under bright lights. Music played and fake fountains splashed and women with perfect hair floated around looking rich. None of the shoppers seemed to have kids—at least not the kind that made noise. It was a far cry from the Sam's Club where Laurel made her annual trip to stock up on blue jeans and T-shirts, and for a moment she thought about splitting. But she had a mission. She was going to buy things and give them away and have fun doing it, like Peggy told her to. She plunged into the nearest store, determined to splurge for the first time in her life.
She started looking for a gift for Maggie, who was an easier nut to crack than Li'l Bit. “I want something warm. A sweater, maybe,” she told a saleswoman she'd hunted down. Maggie was cold all the time these days, but she refused to admit it because she didn't want to dress like a little old lady. “But it's got to be pretty too.”
The saleswoman, who had been eyeing Laurel's Sam's Club ensemble like it wasn't quite clean, reluctantly produced a sweater in a buttery shade of yellow.
“Luscious, isn't it?” she cooed.
Out of force of habit, Laurel checked the price tag—and thought she was going to need CPR. “Four hundred and twenty bucks for a sweater?” she gasped, and started to give it back. But the saleswoman held out her hand to take it with an air of triumph—like she was glad she'd been right about the low-rent chick who was diminishing the value of her merchandise by standing near it—so Laurel said, “I'll take it.”
After that, it got easy. The car had been an emotional purchase, born of impulse, and so outlandish it still didn't seem real. But the sweater was a deliberate choice and once she'd made it she seemed to cross some kind of line. A mindless calm came over her, as she went up and down escalators and in and out of stores. Soon she'd accumulated a fortune's worth of brightly colored sweaters and shawls, wrapped in tissue and tucked in discreetly glossy boxes and shopping bags with logos on them. But she still hadn't found the perfect gift she felt was out there. She continued her quest with a vague sense that she'd know it when she saw it.
And she did. It was on a rack of coats in a store that bore the name of a designer Laurel recognized from seeing his clothes on Nicole Kidman in
magazine. Except the word
didn't begin to describe this garment. It was made out of a silky brocade and cut like a kimono. It was tiny—just long enough to come to Maggie's knees. But it was the colors that took Laurel's breath away. The brocade was a deep rosy pink; the glistening lining and cuffs were a pale pink satin. She grabbed it and knew the search for Maggie's gift was over.
Clothes were out of the question for Li'l Bit, who had been wearing the same uniform of shirtwaist dress and Natural Bridge oxfords since the 1940s. But empowered by her success so far in the world of haute couture and consumerism, Laurel took off with purpose.
Li'l Bit had two great passions in life: her gardens and opera. Every day for a week after Peggy's funeral, Li'l Bit had pulled her ancient phonograph out on the porch, hooked it up to an extension cord, hauled out a pile of scratchy old 78s, and played them at full screech—which, thank you, Jesus, wasn't very powerful on the aged equipment.
“This is Richard Wagner's
Twilight of the Gods
,” Li'l Bit said. “I boycotted Wagner the day we all heard about Kristallnacht, and I've stuck to it all these years.” But the boycott was momentarily suspended for Peggy. Miserably unhappy as Li'l Bit was, Laurel could see how much she loved the opera.
“Anyone who feels that way about music should have a CD player,” Laurel had said to Maggie.
“I've told her and told her,” said Maggie. “She says she's used to her phonograph and it's too late for her to change.” Maggie gave an impatient little snort. She adored any new gadget that came her way and had kept the service guy from the appliance store a virtual prisoner for most of an afternoon when he came to install her TiVo, making him explain the intricacies of it over and over until she could negotiate it and her satellite dish with an assurance Laurel envied.
“You wouldn't believe what it took to get her to use the TV remote,” Maggie said. “That is, after she finally agreed to allow a television in her house. If Bobby Kennedy—God bless his soul—hadn't been shot, I still don't think she'd have one.”
But Li'l Bit had adjusted to the loathesome TV and was now devoted to her remote. So Laurel strode into the high-end electronics store at the far end of the plaza and purchased the most user-friendly sound system she could find. Before she bought it, she had the salesclerk turn up the decibels until she satisfied herself that Li'l Bit, whose hearing wasn't what it had been, could get every note—and so could the rest of the country if she had her windows open.
After arranging to have the CD player and speakers delivered to her car, Laurel went on to her final stop. Next to the electronics store was a glitzy emporium dedicated to the sale of CDs and videos. She informed a bemused young man who asked how he could help her that she wanted every opera he had in the place. Then she was done.
Her sense of well-being started fading somewhere on the way back to Charles Valley. The highway was full of traffic, and her new car idled loudly, which didn't seem like a good omen for a future that would be spent driving to the supermarket rather than racing around a track. In her haste to get behind the wheel of the Viper, she'd left her tapes and CDs of vintage country music in the Camaro. The only country stations she could find on the radio played crossover stuff that didn't drown the devil voices that were now yelling in her head.
Throwing money away the second you got it, like rich white trash
, the voices mocked as Faith Hill sang some rockabilly crap on the radio.
Couldn't you be a little more original? You think Li'l Bit and Maggie want presents you bought with money you got because Peggy is dead?
And there it was. Peggy was dead. Laurel turned up the radio until Faith was loud enough to be heard three cars over.
Even with the devil voices, she probably would have made it home okay if she hadn't seen the Camaro. But when she turned off the Charles Valley exit from I-85 there it was, in the Dodge dealership lot. It sat by itself in the back, bathed in the cruel white glare of fluorescent lights, looking dirty and alone. The least she could have done before she deserted it was wash it. It had been her car for eighteen years, bought used in a moment of wild hope during her first and only semester at college when everything seemed possible. It had come back home with her in defeat when her mother got sick, and it had been one of the few constants in her life since. And she'd dumped it unclean and unloved on strangers who had painted a humiliating
SELL FOR PARTS
sign across its windshield in garish yellow.
The road ahead of her blurred, her eyes filled with tears, and she had to fight to keep from sobbing. She held on until she reached the Sportsman's Grill and pulled into the parking lot to get off the road. The sobs were coming from a place so deep she didn't know she had it. She cried for Peggy, who was gone forever; and Denny, who might as well be; and the job that had been her only source of pride; and her mother, who hadn't been much but was all Laurel had; and the father she'd never known; and the Sportsman's Grill, where Denny's band had been replaced by a DJ who did Elvis impressions at parties; and her poor, sad Camaro, thrown away without as much as a good-bye. She cried for all the changes she didn't want in her life, and the empty spaces inside her that no amount of presents in spiffy boxes would fill up. She bent over so her head was on the steering wheel of her new car and cried for things she didn't even remember.
AVING A MAJOR MELTDOWN
in the middle of a parking lot was embarrassing, especially when it was in front of the hangout you once considered your turf. So when Laurel lifted her head from the steering wheel after about twenty minutes of blubbering, she offered a quick
to heaven that no one had seen her and began rooting around in her purse for a tissue. It was a useless exercise because she never remembered to carry them, not even when she had a cold. But she searched anyway, which, she told herself, did not have anything to do with stalling or not wanting to go home alone, or wishing that Denny was back at his old station in the Sportsman's Grill.
She was about to dump the contents of her purse on the seat next to her when a familiar voice at her side made her jump.
“Laurel?” Perry was standing next to her car; she remembered he ate supper every night here at his dad's restaurant. Given what Maggie could pay him at the clinic, it was probably the only decent meal he had all day.
She knew he was going to take one look at her swollen red eyes and kick into Kindly Doctor mode. That would lead to one of those chats that had helped in the past when the subject of the chat was Peggy, but tonight it was going to make her want to throw things. The thing to do was cut him off with a breezy, Hey, Wiener, gotta run, and get the hell out of there. Instead, for reasons she couldn't control, she turned her tearstained face up to his and said, “Hi, Perry,” in a voice that cracked pathetically.
But instead of offering sympathy and a comforting shoulder to cry on, the fool was staring at her Viper. “Is this yours?” he asked reverently.
Dr. Sensitivity hadn't even seen her tearstained face. The car had brought on an industrial-strength attack of Guy's Toy Lust. Which was pretty much the same lust that had attacked her, so she should have understood it.
“What's the top it can do?” asked the Wiener. In another second he'd be drooling. She wanted to snatch a handful of his T-shirt and yank his head down so she could bang it on her steering wheel. She wanted to turn on the ignition and drive the Viper over his feet. Instead, she grabbed his hand and said, “Wiener, please. You've got to help me get my car back.”
The desperation in her voice finally penetrated. He dragged his gaze away from the Viper.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I want my car back!” She choked.
“This isn't yours?” His eyes wandered back longingly to the Viper.
“Yes, it's mine! I want my Camaro back!”
“Why?” His hand stroked the side door in an involuntary motion. She was losing him again.
“Because she's my baby and she's at the Dodge dealership out by I-Eighty-five, and I need to get her home before someone buys her and chops her up for parts. Please, Wiener, I can't let them do that to her. She was my first car!”
The words brought him back from whatever automotive la-la land he'd been inhabiting. He looked down at her with the same understanding she'd seen him give Peggy so many times. “Too many changes going on right now, aren't there?” he said gently.
She wanted to tell him just how bad it really was. But if she did, she'd go to pieces.
“It's not that big a deal—getting the Camaro back,” she lied. “I just thought I'd like to have a second car for”—she searched for a second—“for backup. If I have to—you know . . . haul things. This Viper isn't a good hauling car.” The Camaro wasn't much in the hauling department either, but she rubbed a couple of late-blooming tears out of her eyes with her fists and gave him a spunky little smile. “So what do you say? It'll only take about an hour, maybe a little longer.”
He glanced down at the passenger seat, crammed with packages.
“I'm going to take all that stuff back,” she said inanely. “I wanted to give Maggie and Li'l Bit something—presents—you know? But Maggie is so fussy about what she wears, and Li'l Bit will never figure out how to use the CD player, and I've never been any good at picking out things to give people—”
“If you open your trunk I can put the packages in it,” he cut in.
“You're gonna come with me?”
“Are you kidding? I want to see you drive this thing.”
She handed him the packages to put in the trunk. But he couldn't fit them in because Li'l Bit's CD player was taking up all the room, so he stowed the overflow in the front seat of his own car. Then she watched as he slid into the passenger seat of the Viper with admirable grace. He eyed the Viper's gearshift.
“You do know what you're doing, right?” he asked. By way of an answer, she turned the ignition key and peeled out of the parking lot.
“Am I scaring you?” she asked sweetly, over the roar of the motor.
“Girl, do your thing!” he shouted. And as she hit the gas, the ever-so-dependable Dr. Douglass threw his head back and let out a rebel yell. Proving that Charles Valley's very own Doogie Howser was still a kid.
Laurel had been the one who'd asked Perry to take care of Peggy. When Peggy first came back from the hospital, she'd dutifully continued going into Atlanta to her oncologist at Emory for her treatments. But as she got weaker and her prognosis worsened, she didn't want to undergo the exhausting trip anymore. Her specialist wasn't about to trust the widow of Dalton Garrison to some local practitioner out in the sticks, and he wanted her to stay in Atlanta, but Laurel thought of Denny's beautiful baby brother who had just moved back home and was working for Maggie.
“Peggy needs to watch the sunsets with Maggie and Li'l Bit,” she'd said to him.
And he understood. The city doctor hadn't, but The Wiener was a Charles Valley boy who knew all about the three Miss Margarets sitting on Miss Li'l Bit's porch every afternoon. The next day he'd taken his Harvard-educated self up to Atlanta to meet with Peggy's specialist, and then Peggy was home for good.
After a while, when Peggy was too sick for sunsets on Li'l Bit's porch and Laurel was spending all her time at Peggy's house, Perry started coming by every day after his work at the clinic. He brought Peggy's favorite foods: pulled pork sandwiches with the sweet sauce (not the hot) from Lenny's Barbecue, fried chicken from the Sportsman's Grill, and, once, a bag of tomatoes from the garden he'd planted in his backyard.
Laurel had opened the bag and was hit with the smell of sun and dirt that always accompanies fresh-picked tomatoes. They were at their absolute peak, bright red, and so full of juice it felt like it was going to burst through the skin when she touched them. She put down the bag and started out the kitchen door. “Don't you do a thing with those,” she said over her shoulder to Peggy's night nurse, who was saying something about a nice healthy salad.
Laurel came back twenty minutes later with a jar of Hellmann's mayonnaise, a giant economy-size roll of paper towels, salt, pepper, and the freshest loaf of Wonder Bread she could find in Brown's Convenience Store.
“The bread's got to be soft,” she told the nurse, who hailed from somewhere up north. While Perry and Peggy looked on in happy anticipation, Laurel spooned up mayonnaise in big dollops and spread it on the bread. She cut the tomatoes into slices, laid them on top, and then she added lots of salt and black pepper—not the pepper you had to grind, the kind from a little red-and-white can.
“'Mater sandwiches,” Peggy informed the nurse, a big smile on her too-thin face. “Wait until you taste!”
The sandwiches were the best Laurel had ever made, creamy and juicy and salty and sweet all at once. The bread had just the right degree of squishiness. They taught the nurse to bend over the sink to eat it so the juice wouldn't run down her elbows.
“Oh, that is good.” The woman groaned with pleasure and reached for a second one. Even Peggy managed to get down a half a sandwich.
“I've never eaten so much mayonnaise at one time in my life,” the nurse said.
So Peggy and Laurel started showing off, listing the specialties based on one of the South's basic foods.
“We even make a cake from it,” Laurel bragged.
“Maggie makes the best,” Peggy said.
“I love Maggie to death, but you can't beat the one they serve at McGuire's,” Laurel protested.
Perry suggested a contest, promising to produce cakes from both Maggie and McGuire's for the nurse to judge. Laurel offered her ten bucks as a bribe, which made Peggy laugh. It was the kind of silliness Peggy needed—or maybe they all needed it. All Laurel knew was that Peggy ate the second half of her tomato sandwich. “Oh, we're having
,” she said, over and over, like a kid at Christmas. And for that night, thanks to The Wiener's tomatoes, they were.
Later, after Peggy had been helped into bed and given her meds, Laurel went in to say good night. Peggy took Laurel's hand in hers and kissed it. “I'm so lucky,” she whispered. “I'm the luckiest woman in the world.”
And the ravaged little face looking up at her was so alive and hungry for happiness that Laurel wanted to punch the wall. But she made herself nod and kiss Peggy's cheek. “I'll see you tomorrow,” she said, with a big fake smile. “Now get some sleep.” And she kept herself from running until she got out of the room.
Perry caught up with her outside in the driveway.
“She's lucky?” Laurel whispered, although she wanted to scream. “Peggy never had a lucky day in her life. And now it's over. The whole goddam thing is over for her, and she never got what she wanted.”
“Maybe she had more than you know,” Perry said.
“She wanted a baby, did you know that? She wanted a daughter, and that old bastard Dalton wouldn't let her have one.”
“But she got herself one anyway. I think that's what she was trying to tell you.”
And just as suddenly as the anger had come, it vanished. Because Perry was right. “We didn't have enough time,” she said. “I've only known her for a little while.”
“Yeah. It isn't fair to you.”
But this time he was wrong. “No. I'm lucky too,” she said.
They stood quietly for a moment; then, without her asking, he walked her over to her car.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
There was a breeze stirring the night air and a star-packed summer sky above her. For a brief insane second she almost forgot Perry was Denny's baby brother. But then he opened her car door for her and said, “Drive safe, Laurel Selene,” just the way Denny always used to, and she remembered. She drove off, resolving not to forget again.
Which was why she freaked when she saw him the next day in the SuperSave Market. He was leaning over to pick up a package of chicken parts, and she watched him for almost a minute before she realized what she was doing.
You are not checking out The Wiener's butt!
she told herself furiously.
You are not!
She had run out of the store, narrowly missing a display of banana-pudding samples in the produce section.
Now, as the Viper roared through the night, Laurel could feel her cheeks burning all over again when she remembered the moment in the SuperSave. The Wiener was cute, there was no getting away from that, but she was eight years older than he was, and there was something deeply wrong about having the hots—even momentarily—for the infant sibling of the guy who had been your spiritual if not your biological brother for most of your life. No matter how attractive Dr. Douglass was, noticing how well his jeans fit certain parts of his anatomy made Laurel feel like she was tiptoeing close to incest.