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Authors: Elizabeth Bass

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BOOK: Wherever Grace Is Needed
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Ben nodded. “Well . . . just don’t be surprised if you come home to find a new jazz section in your precious store.”
“No jazz.”
It wasn’t that she didn’t like jazz, or lots of other types of music. But as far as Rigoletto’s was concerned, a Miles Davis CD was just a gateway drug. Allow that in and next thing you knew there would be rock and country and—she shuddered—top forty. Then she would be just another music store. Just another music store going out of business.
“Promise me—no jazz, no indie rock, no Top 40,” she said.
“Promise me you won’t leave me stranded here in a cat nursing home and catering to your lunatic customers forever.”
Out of the blue, Grace felt a sharp sudden pang about leaving that had nothing to with Ben or even with her decrepit old cats. This was a thunderclap of concern for Rigoletto’s. For years her store had felt like her home, the home she’d finally managed to make for herself when the real things didn’t pan out. While her contemporaries had been setting out on career paths or spending years in graduate school, she had thrown the best years of her life into Rigoletto’s. She’d regularly worked eighteen-hour days and scrimped pennies to pay off her bank loan and become an amateur plumber and carpenter to keep from hiring expensive labor. She’d survived a recession and the encroaching gentrification of the store’s once dirt cheap neighborhood.
Now she worried that if she didn’t watch over her flock of repeat customers, these nuts she had spent years ministering to—the students, the Volvo drivers, the misfits—they would scatter into the retail wind.
“Of course I won’t leave forever,” she assured him, feeling torn between two geographical points. Between Texas and Oregon. Between family and family substitute. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. I just need to make sure Dad can look after himself.”
“No worries, Grace. I’ll hold down the fort.” Ben smiled. “Just leave it all in the hands of the Life champion.”
“Champion? Really?” She’d forgotten all about the tournament.
Ben shrugged. “Well . . . just at Life. After that I got Tiddly-Winked down to fifth place and knocked out of the competition by a disastrous showing in Operation. I guess there’s a reason surgeons shouldn’t drink three beers before they cut somebody open.”
She laughed. Still . . . to be Life champion. Even if it was only temporary, Grace would have settled for that.
3
I
AGO
I
S
M
ISSING
N
o one was there to meet Grace at the airport, which was no big deal. She could get to the hospital on the bus. The only downside was that she wouldn’t really be able to clean herself up before she saw her dad. Coming off the plane she felt unwashed, wrinkly, and droopy. Also, she was dressed in comfy jean shorts and jogging sneakers because she’d read somewhere that you should wear loose-fitting clothing and athletic shoes on planes, in case of a crash. Easier to vault over your fellow passengers and hurl yourself toward the exits, she presumed.
Her father would say she looked like a slob. He was always bemoaning the
Tobacco Road
fashion standards of the day. He could hold forth on the sloppiness of the general public almost as long as he could decry the poor reading habits of the average undergrad. During her last visit, she’d begun to tense up every time they were in public and she heard the slap of backless sandals; a flip-flop sighting could trigger an hour-long lament.
Even now that he no longer went to work, her dad was a jacket-and-tie man. Shirts were always starched, pants creased. In the old days he’d played tennis, always in proper attire bleached to an eye-straining white. Ever since his sore knees had forced him to give up that sport, his exercise routine was to get up early, dress in a polo shirt tucked into khakis and his Mr. Rogers boating sneakers, and walk his dog around the neighborhood.
As she settled herself on the bus, Grace juggled bag, purse, and a container of barbecue she’d bought at the Salt Lick stand at the airport and marveled over the dips and twists of life. How had her father ever thought he could be happy with her mother? Cindy Oliver Wainwright probably didn’t own an article of clothing that wasn’t cotton knit, and the suggestion of ironing anything would elicit gales of laughter. Grace hadn’t seen her mother read a book in decades that wasn’t written by some incarnation of Nora Roberts, while Lou was suspicious of anything post–Edith Wharton. As far as Grace could tell, love between her parents had withered shortly after “I do,” but the marriage had sputtered on for five more years. It was the biggest mistake either of them had ever made.
And she was the result.
By the time Grace arrived at the hospital, it was already past three. Her dad was sitting up in bed, his plaster-encased leg jutting out in front of him, his eyes trained absently on the opposite wall. She’d rarely seen him when he wasn’t absorbed in a book or some other task. He looked slightly different, although it took her a second to figure out the problem. His hair was longer. His cheeks were covered with a grayish shadow.
When he caught sight of her, his face remained a blank, then it morphed into a puzzled frown.
“Let me guess . . .” She tilted her head. “Steven didn’t tell you I was coming?”
In the next moment, he snapped back to his old self. “Of course he did,” he responded in his usual clipped voice. “But he didn’t tell me that you intended to move into the hospital with me.”
She laughed and dropped her bag and purse on the ground so that she could give him a quick air hug, which in the Oliver family translated into a lavish display of affection. As she leaned over him, he relieved her of the greasy white sack she was carrying.
“Salt Lick,” she explained.
“Isn’t fifteen hundred miles a long way to go to smuggle lunch to an old man in the hospital?” He peeked into the sack.
Grace twisted to scope out the room. “Is there an old man here?”
“Old enough to not be able to scoot out of the way of an oncoming vehicle. I never should have given up tennis,” he grumbled as he extracted the takeout container. “Although that behemoth was barreling down on me so fast, I would have had to be Usain Bolt to outrun it.” He shifted uncomfortably. “The police insist the accident happened because I was jaywalking.”
“Jaywalking on the drag? Why?”
“I don’t know why!” he replied, almost yelling. “Your brothers keep asking me that. First Steven, then Sam on the phone. How should I know?”
He seemed truly agitated, so she let it drop. She sat down on the bed and gave his leg a tap. “Good thing I did come all this way. You obviously haven’t had many visitors. No one’s signed your cast.”
“Truman offered to. I told him to keep his mitts off my leg.”
Truman was her dad’s older brother. “How is Uncle Truman?”
“He hasn’t been run over by any Mac trucks lately, so he’s a damn sight better off than I am.”
“Listen to the self-pity! It was an SUV.”
“It was a behemoth.” He took his first bite of barbecue and his face melted into a mask of bliss.
“Better than hospital food?” she asked.
“Much. Thank you.”
“So when can I spring you from this place?”
“Soon, I hope. I think they would have pushed me out two hours after I got here, except for Steven. Seems to think I can’t cope on my own.”
“You will be a bit mobility challenged. That’s why I’m here—to help out for a while.”
A dark eyebrow darted up. “Don’t you have a store to run?”
“Ben’s looking after things.”
He made a face. “Scruffy Ben?” Her father’s nose wrinkled in distaste. “I don’t trust a grown man who tells me he skateboards to work. You don’t worry he’s going to dip into the till?”
“I’m more worried that he’ll try to update the inventory.”
Her father, who had cosigned the original loan for Rigoletto’s, seemed more horrified by the idea than she was. “You need to get back up there. There’s not going to be anything for you to do here anyway.”
“Not so sure about that.” She nodded at the crutches in the corner. “Do you intend to hobble back and forth to the grocery store on those?”
“If I have to. It will be good exercise.”
“How will you carry anything?”
“I do have friends, you know.” He leveled his paternal glare on her, which he had never managed to make very menacing. “I’m not entirely alone in the world.”
“I know you’re not. And now that I’m here, you’re even less alone.”
He looked up at her and, almost grudgingly, his face broke into a smile. “It’s good to see you, Grace.”
“Even in sneakers?”
He eyed her feet. “Well . . . they’re better than those awful flip-flop things. Do you know people wear them even here? Visitors! Can you believe it? I can hear them coming from two hallways over.
Fwap, fwap, fwap!
It’s as if the whole world had turned into the shower room at the YMCA. . . .”
She smiled and settled in for a lengthy diatribe on the world’s deteriorating standards in footwear.
Welcome home.
 
Dr. Allen, Lou’s doctor, wanted him to stay another night. Evidently, there were problems neither Steven nor Lou himself had seen fit to mention to her. His blood pressure had been spiking; they were trying to get his medication adjusted. The doctor told her they had also feared a head injury when he came in, because he’d been disoriented. But now the doctor was also attributing that to the blood pressure problem.
So in the afternoon, when her father slipped into an impromptu siesta, Grace grabbed his keys and made her way to his house.
By the time she stepped off the bus in the old neighborhood, she realized that she was ready for a nap herself. The afternoon was warm; every time she visited, she had to readapt to the heavy humid heat of Texas. As she lugged her stuff up the front porch steps of the old Craftsman house, her lack of sleep announced itself in every muscle of her body and the scratchy feeling behind her eyes. First she would take a long shower, and then she would collapse onto the old chenille coverlet of the spare bedroom.
Her
bedroom—though it hadn’t been officially hers for twenty-two years now.
She let herself in, welcoming the fifteen-degree drop in temperature even as something in the air made her wary. Her nose wrinkled. A malodorous trail led her into the kitchen. The culprit sat right in the middle of the old chrome dinette table in the kitchen: a half-eaten bowl of cereal and a milk carton, spout gaping.
She picked up the milk carton with her fingertips and upended it into the kitchen sink. Then she brought the bowl over and dumped its contents in, too, before flipping a switch and sending the whole mess gurgling down the garbage disposal. Why would her father have left his breakfast out and set off for campus?
She was scrubbing the sink with cleanser when she heard a knock at the door. Drying her hands on a paper towel, she hurried to answer it. When she opened it she found herself looking down into the face of a boy, probably eleven or so, judging by the awkward, half-formed look of him. His mop of brownish blond hair, chubby cheeks, and round brown eyes brought to mind little animals in old animated movies. The kid was born to be a Disney chipmunk.
“Is Professor Oliver back?” he asked.
“No, he—”
“Is he dead?”
She straightened, taken aback by the blunt question. “No! Why?”
“I heard he got run over.”
“And you’re . . . ?”
“I’m Dominic,” he said, as if she should have known this. “I live next door.”
Ah! Now she remembered. Her father’s neighbors, a couple that had moved in about ten years earlier, had a flock of kids. It was sweet that her dad had befriended one of them.
“I’ll be seeing Dad tonight,” she said. “Would you like me to take him a message?”
His face scrunched up. “Why?”
“Well . . . maybe to tell him to get well? Or that you look forward to seeing him soon?”
The kid gaped at her as if she were insane. “He barely knows me!”
“Oh.” Grace lapsed into silent confusion.
“I was just worried he might be dead,” Dominic told her.
The matter-of-fact way he kept repeating that unnerved her. “He broke his leg, but they’ve set it and he’s able to hobble around. He’ll probably be back tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow!” Dominic exclaimed, as if this news would upset some important life plan of his.
“Or maybe the next day.”
He tilted his head, puffed his cheeks, and blew out a long breath. “Well, okay. Thanks.”
He turned and clomped down the stairs.
Odd.
Maybe Dominic just saw it as his duty to make sure everyone in the neighborhood was present and accounted for. It was summer vacation. Kids had to do something.
She turned and went back inside. She was feeling a little headachy now, and she realized she hadn’t had any caffeine since the Styrofoam cup of so-called coffee on the first leg of her plane trip. Which now seemed half a lifetime ago. She usually slurped down a few espressos per day—a perk of owning her own business-slash-café.
She opened the kitchen cabinet where the coffee had always been kept and found six boxes of Grape Nuts, a long shiny box of aluminum foil, and a tangerine. In her current state of fatigue, the incongruous still life was too taxing on her brain. She shut the cabinet.
In the drawer where the coffee filters usually were, she discovered a stack of printed paper. She reached in, grabbed the sheet on top, and saw that it was a mundane but very detailed to-do list.
Monday, the 22nd:
Let Iago out. Coffee. Iago in. Dog food. H/W pill. Breakfast. Vitamins. B/P pill.
Shower, shave, dress.
Walk, read, lunch.
PM: Pharmacy.
(This item was written in her father’s hand in blue ink.)
Dinner. Iago’s dinner. Walk.
Everything off.
Doors.
 
Each item had been ticked off when completed. She leafed through the pages underneath, which had been carefully typed and printed, double-sided. On some days, there were extras scrawled in, such as
“Dr. Franklin,”
or “
Dinner at M’s 7:30.”
These activities would be scored through when finished, just as the others were.
She scanned the list again, but this time her gaze arrested on one word.
Iago.
Iago was her father’s dog. She’d completely forgotten.
Frowning, she glanced down at the two stainless-steel bowls resting on an old newspaper on the floor. One was empty, and the other one had about two inches of water and an overturned dead cockroach floating in it. Iago’s bowls. But where was Iago?
Her father hadn’t mentioned the dog to her; in the back of her mind, she’d just assumed he would be here. Had she overlooked a sixty-pound basset hound? She made a quick sweep through the house, although it seemed unnecessary. Iago usually trotted up as soon as someone came in. He wasn’t in the house, and a quick glimpse around the yard revealed no dog out there, either. All the gates were closed, so it didn’t look as if he had escaped.
BOOK: Wherever Grace Is Needed
2.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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