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Authors: Elizabeth Bass

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BOOK: Wherever Grace Is Needed
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7
B
ACK
H
OME
W
hen Grace came back from next door, her father was installed in his favorite wing chair in the living room next to the old chess board, his injured leg jutting out onto the area rug. He glanced at her newfound objet d’art and recoiled like a vampire exposed to sunlight. “What is
that?

“It’s Egbert,” she announced.
He didn’t even ask for a translation. “It’s awful.”
She flipped the painting around and inspected it again—a yellow smiley face melting into a black backdrop. Something about it made her smile. According to Dominic, his blue-haired sister had painted it herself, though you couldn’t have told it from the girl’s reaction when Grace had forked over her five dollars. Jordan had barely spared the picture a glance.
“It’ll look good in the kitchen,” Grace said.
“Here?” Lou said, horror-struck.
She laughed. “In Portland. Ben will get a kick out of it.” She thumped her dad’s cast playfully. “
Ben
has a sense of humor.”
She crossed the room to lean the picture against the closet door, out of the way. She was almost afraid to turn around again. Her father was planted next to that chess board like a threat. She didn’t mind chess, but when she played her dad she needed to be in a losing frame of mind.
“How about a game?” A casual onlooker might not have caught the subtle yet sinister gleam in his eye.
She relented. After all, he was an invalid. “Okay, just let me put some coffee on first.” She remembered that he couldn’t drink regular coffee now, and they were out of decaf. “You want some juice or something?”
“No, no—but Iago would probably like a . . .”
“A what?”
“One of those little things he eats all the time.”
Actually, what Iago wanted was rarely in doubt. The dog waddled after her to the kitchen, where Grace took out his box of biscuits and handed him one. He snapped it out of her hand and trotted away with it to savor in paranoid solitude under the dining room table. Five years on, he still hadn’t grasped the idea that no one was going to snatch his bisky back.
When she returned to the living room, Lou was practically rubbing his hands together in anticipation. To give him credit, he never seemed to realize the game would be a massacre. In fact, as they began, so did his usual gasps of shock whenever Grace made a bone-headed move. As the carnage piled up and her downfall became eminent, he started adding interjections, trying to stop her before she could take her hand off her piece.
“You do realize that’s your queen, don’t you?” he asked in a doleful tone.
She was just trying to figure out what calamity would befall her queen when the doorbell rang. Lou reached for his crutches.
“I’ll get it, Dad. By the time you critch over to the door, our visitor might have given up hope and gone away.”
“Depending on the visitor, that might be the best outcome.”
As if to prove his point, when Grace opened the door, Uncle Truman brushed past, removing his summer straw hat and fanning himself with it as he eyed his brother. “You look pitiful!” he exclaimed.
Lou chuckled.
“Do you intend to walk around for six weeks with half a fraying trouser leg?” Truman asked.
“He just got home from the hospital,” Grace protested.
But Uncle Truman’s bluntness never fazed her father. “I was going to have Grace take a few pairs to a tailor to have them altered.”
Truman sank down in the chair Grace had vacated. “Grace can’t do it herself?”
“No, she can’t,” Grace said.
Her uncle shook his head. “Women today are pitiful! That’s what I was just telling Peggy.”
“I’m sure she was tickled to hear it,” Lou said dryly.
“I didn’t mean
her,”
Truman said.
“You meant me.” Grace and her father exchanged smiles.
If Truman entertained a suspicion that he was the object of their mutual mirth, he didn’t show it. “Peggy’s making peach preserves today. You should see it! I took her out to Fredericksburg yesterday and we bought a few bushels, and now she’s going at it like a house afire. Mason jars everywhere, kitchen all steamed up. And I know for a fact she can make clothes, and garden, and crotchet—and I don’t know what-all.”
“All hail Peggy,” Grace said without enthusiasm. One talent the woman evidently lacked was visiting her old friend to welcome him home from the hospital. “Right now I’m taxing my meager housekeeping skills making a pot of coffee. Would you care for some, Uncle Truman?”
His face collapsed in a frown. “Oh . . . I don’t know. Is it decaf?”
“No, it’s caf.”
“I’m only supposed to drink decaf.” He tilted his head. “But I don’t guess a cup’ll kill me.”
Grace didn’t guess anything would kill Uncle Truman, except maybe a strict regimen of enforced tact.
Since when did he drive women out to peach orchards? she wondered as she marched into the kitchen. And why Peggy?
She loaded up coffee cups and carried them into the living room on a tray, waitress style, along with a glass of orange juice for her dad.
“How about a game, Tru?” her father asked his brother.
Truman almost spilled the cup Grace was handing to him. “Do you think I’m a fool? You might be an invalid now, but you’re probably still a cheat.”
Lou raised his hand to swear. “I never cheated in my life.”
“Then how is it you always win?” Truman argued.
“Because I’m a better player than you. Always have been.”
“Winning all the time,” Truman grumbled in disgust. “Where’s the sport in that?”
“It beats losing all the time,” Grace said, settling onto the sofa by the front window.
Lou changed the subject. “Grace had to hunt down Iago while I was in the hospital. The neighbor’s boy was taking care of him. Thought he had been abandoned.”
Truman shook his head more mournfully than a temporary dognapping seemed to call for. “That accident was a bad business.”
At first Grace assumed he was referring to Lou getting run over. But there was a decided shift in the air in the room—a gloomy silence that couldn’t be attributed to a broken leg.
“What accident?” she asked.
Her father looked as if he regretted bringing up the subject of the neighbors. “The family next door was on vacation earlier this year,” he explained. “While the mother was driving somewhere with one of the girls, the two of them were in a head-on collision. Both were killed.”
Grace remembered Lily mentioning her mom. The pianist. She’d had no idea the loss was so recent. “How awful! The daughter who was killed, was she the oldest?”
Lou nodded. “She was a twin, and the better half by a long shot. That sister of hers hasn’t been around lately, though.”
“She’s back.” Grace understood now. They were talking about the teenager selling all her things. The sister whose return had made Lily so upset, and Dominic so happy.
She couldn’t imagine the devastation of an accident like that. It explained some things, though. Such as why an eleven-year-old boy would seem preoccupied with whether his old neighbor, a man he didn’t really know, was dead. And whether his dog had been left abandoned. It also explained Ray West’s shell-shocked expression.
“I invited Dominic to visit Iago,” she said. “He stopped by today to tell me about the sale, but he didn’t want to come in. I think he still expects to be arrested.”
Truman grunted. “Serve him right!”
“He’s welcome,” Lou said. “Maybe I can convince him to wear his cap the right way around. Strike a blow for civilization.”
Truman stood up. “I can’t laze around here all day,” he announced irritably, as if they had been holding him there against his will.
“Glad you dropped in,” Lou told him.
“I’ll be back.” Truman glanced at the cast and then sent his brother a sly look. “I’ll let you know if I hear about any marathons you can enter.”
He exited laughing.
After closing the door behind him, Grace paced across the room to stand in front of the dormant fireplace. “Spreading sunshine wherever he goes. What’s he doing squiring Peggy around to peach farms all of a sudden? I never even knew they liked each other all that much.”
“You think people can’t change just because they’ve got AARP cards? Not everybody’s opinions and feelings harden right alongside their arteries.”
“I know that.”
“Peggy and Truman’s business is their business.”
“All right,” she said, sorry now that she had said anything.
“You know what I think?” He studied her with one of those sharp, penetrating gazes of his. “I think you’re gossiping as a way to avoid getting the pants whupped off you in chess.”
“Ha! You’re so sure of yourself.” She crossed over to the chair adjacent to his, which from her perspective might just as well have been dubbed the chair of perpetual sorrow, seeing how it was usually ground zero for soul-crushing defeat. Hope sprang eternal, however. “Where were we?”
“You had just done something very foolish,” he said, whisking a bishop over to gobble up her queen.
She blinked. “Where did
he
come from?”
Her father chortled.
She concentrated on the board, as always hoping that if she stared fiercely enough at all the pieces, a survival strategy would suddenly occur to her. “Have you ever considered the possibility that I’ve just been letting you win all these years so that you’ll let your guard down, laying yourself bare for the ultimate chess smackdown?”
“You mean it’s all been a big set-up?” He laughed.
“Just you wait,” she said, sliding her castle to take one of his pawns.
He twinkled a smile at her and then nodded toward the board. “Checkmate.”
8
Y
OU
A
GAIN
T
he next day, Steven came back from St. Louis. Of all her siblings—in Texas and in Oregon—Steven was the tallest and best looking, with wavy dark hair and intense blue eyes. He usually kept his feelings hidden, at least around her, but today he walked with a tired stoop, and the sadness in those eyes gave Grace’s heart a sharp wrench. He looked as though he needed a hug, but they’d never been close, so he appeared caught by surprise when she leaned in and gave him a quick, awkward clutch.
“Where’s Dad?” he asked after he’d pulled away from her.
“In the kitchen, eating lunch.”
“Has there been trouble?”
“Not
trouble,
exactly.” She debated whether to say more. Many of the things Lou had said over the past few days, and some of the things he’d forgotten, had made her nervous. Perhaps she was overreacting, though. “Talk to him, and then you tell me.”
She led him back to the kitchen, where their father was leaning over a bowl of tomato soup. Lou took a look at Steven and let out half a chuckle. “You again.”
Steven stopped just feet in front of the entrance to the kitchen. He pivoted toward Grace for an explanation of that remark, but she was as clueless as he was.
“You were just here yesterday,” Lou said.
Steven laughed uncomfortably. “Uh . . . I just got back from St. Louis, Dad. Maybe I have a double?”
“And maybe somebody’s been doubling down on the painkillers.” Grace sent Steven a raised brow before turning back to Lou. “You sure you’re not thinking of Truman, Dad? You probably just
wished
it had been Steven.”
Steven looked alarmed. “I look like an eighty-one-year-old?”
Grace handed him a cup of coffee. “How was the trip? Are you feeling all right?”
He shrugged and sank into a chair with a sigh. “I’m fine. A lot of work to do, of course.”
She sent him a look to convey the fact that she hadn’t said a word to their father about his marital and professional situation.
Steven shook his head. “Dad knows, Grace. I told him Saturday.”
“Told me what?” Lou asked.
“About Denise,” Steven said.
She’d been living with her dad for days and he’d never dropped the slightest hint that he knew what Stephen was going through. Never uttered a peep. Times like these, she longed for Sam. Sam liked to hash things out from every angle.
“Oh, yes,” Lou said. “ ‘An arrant traitor as any!’ ”
Steven sank down a little farther in his chair.
“I’m so sorry, Steven,” Grace said. He looked so sad, she wanted to give him another hug. But she refrained.
“It’s okay. We’ve been working out how to divide up the practice. I’ll have to hire a new office nurse and tech, but Emily, our office administrator, is coming with me. I guess I need to get busy finding us a new home. It will take a while to set up.”
“What about you—won’t you need a home, too?” Grace asked.
“Denise moved out. I’ll stay.” He pulled a roll of Tums out of his pocket and crunched on one for a moment before taking a sip of coffee. “I think my ulcer’s coming back.”
For a moment they all sat staring into their coffee cups.
“Won’t you be selling your house?” Grace asked. “I mean, it’s community property.”
“No one’s said anything about a divorce yet.”
Lou looked at him in disbelief. “You don’t mean you’re still hoping for a reconciliation?”
“Well, no—maybe. Naturally, the practice is broken up, and that’s terrible . . .” His shaking hand pushed another Tums out of the roll, and it went shooting across the table. He lunged for it. “This job is so stressful! It drives us all crazy sometimes.”
Grace tried to hold back criticism, but she couldn’t help herself. “Stress makes people drink too much, or throw temper tantrums, or eat too many Oreos.”
“But everyone’s different, aren’t they?” Steven asked.
Out of the corner of her eye, Grace caught sight of a face peering at them through the window of the side mudroom door. She jumped, startled—but then she recognized Dominic. She got up to let him in.
Lou seemed amused by the arrival of their new visitor. “Creeping around the side, are you? Planning another heist?”
Dominic’s face went red. “No—my sister Lily she said y’all were in here, so I came to maybe see Iago?”
“How did Lily know we were here?” Grace asked.
“Lily knows everything.” Dominic regarded Steven with a shy, curious smile.
“This is my brother,” Grace explained, making the introductions. “Steven, Dominic.”
Steven extended his hand. “Hi, Dominic.”
Dominic shook it briefly before stepping back again. “I only meant, Lily knows where everybody is practically all the time because she keeps up with things like that. Plus her bedroom is on this side of the house, and she has our mom’s bird-watching binoculars now.”
“I suddenly feel like a specimen under a microscope,” Grace said.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Dominic assured her. “Lily doesn’t usually tell anybody anything. Especially not anything interesting.”
“Thank heavens for that, at least.”
“She writes it all down instead. In her diary.”
“The Samuel Pepys of Hyde Park,” Lou mused.
Dominic looked confused. “Is Iago here? Or maybe you’re so mad I stole him you wish I’d go away?”
Lou chuckled. “To err is human, Master Dominic. We don’t want you to go away. Iago is having his afternoon nap in the backyard.” Lou grabbed his crutches and thumped one against the linoleum in the determined way that Grace was beginning to understand signaled his intention to get up and move.
Dominic seemed alarmed by the effort Lou had to expend on his behalf. “I can go by myself.”
Lou laughed. “I need to keep my eye on you. How can I be sure your dognapping days are behind you?”
Dominic started to protest, but Lou rummaged through the biscuit box, brought out two bone-shaped biscuits, and handed them to him. “I have a hard time carrying things—and managing doors. I could use your help.”
“Oh, sure,” Dominic said.
After the two went out, Steven took a sip of coffee. “Dad seems about the same as always.”
“He confused you with Uncle Truman!” she reminded him. “You’ve got to admit, that was weird.”
“He’s always been absentminded.”
“Since when?”
Steven frowned. “Well, since he retired. I guess in the last year I’ve noticed it more.”
Grace hadn’t. But she hadn’t been around to notice.
“The other night in the hospital he forgot Iago was missing five minutes after we had just talked about it,” she said.
“That could have been the painkillers.”
Grace wondered if Steven’s patients had to battle his skepticism to make him believe their symptoms. “Also, I’ve been finding odd stuff around the house.”
“Like what?”
“Like a cabinet holding nothing but six boxes of Grape Nuts.”
“Maybe they were having a sale somewhere. He was stocking up.”
She crossed to the kitchen drawer in the corner. “While he was in the hospital, I ran across these.” She pulled out the printed lists notated in their father’s spidery script and handed it to her brother.
Steven read the top one and flipped through a few others. “Lots of people make lists.”
“These aren’t just to-do lists,” she argued. “These are blueprints. He’s making sure he doesn’t forget.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t
not forgetting
what a list is for?”
“Yeah, but he’s been making sure he doesn’t forget to take a shower. To eat. Who forgets to eat?”
For a moment, Steven searched for a response. He folded his arms, frowning. “What do you think we should do?”
“I was going to ask you.”
“I’m not a neurologist, Grace. If a rotator cuff needs fixing, I’m your man. But memory loss . . . I haven’t thought about this since I was an intern. I do know that medications can cause memory problems.”
“But now his blood pressure dosage has been readjusted.”
“Or it could be a thyroid issue.”
Her phone rang, and as she fished it out of her purse, Steven stared quizzically at the mark on the old chrome dinette where Sam had once left a red Magic Marker uncapped.
The number was Ben’s. Grace’s chipper greeting was met by a moan of despair.
“There’s water everywhere! What am I supposed to do?”
That quickly, she was plunged into a remote catastrophe. “Back up a step, Ben. Where are you, and why is there water everywhere?”
“The hot water heater!” he shouted. “It must have busted overnight. How can I open the store while this is going on?”
“Wait. It’s the water heater at the store?” That one had been replaced recently.
“No—I’m at the house. I came back to feed the cats and noticed . . .”
She frowned. It was just before ten o’clock, Portland time. If he was just coming back to the house, where had he spent the night?
He heard the unspoken question and sputtered, “I crashed at Danny’s, okay? He got a new Wii. The thing is, what am I gonna do about all this water? I have stuff stored down here. My box of H.P. Lovecrafts is all soggy.”
“Call the landlord.”
“I don’t even know who that is.”
“Never mind,
I’ll
call the landlord. Go tend to Rigoletto’s and I’ll get the water heater situation straightened out from here. I’ll call you back to let you know if and when you’ll have to return to the house to let the plumber in.”
“Do you think your renter’s insurance will pay for my books? Some of them are really valuable.”
“Mmm . . . doubtful.” Before he could whine, she added, “But I’ll check. Is everything else all right?”
“Huh?”
“Heathcliff and Earnshaw?”
“They’re fine, Grace. Well, still alive. The one only comes out from under the couch to eat or upchuck.” He sighed raggedly. “
I’m
not fine, in case you’re wondering.”
“I can hear that,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’ll tend to this, Ben.”
When she hung up, Steven was still sitting with arms folded. “You obviously need to learn how to be in two places at once.”
“I practically am, thanks to this doohickey.” She searched through her phone’s list and called the landlord, who told her to call the plumber herself, which she did. Then she sat down to text the meet-up time to Ben.
Steven sighed and slid down in his chair, stretching his legs out under the table. “Wherever Grace is needed.”
She shot him a look as she punched the tiny keys.
He smiled. “Like when Sam was on his first foreign assignment and came down with meningitis. How long did it take you to get on a plane? Two hours?”
“Of course. Sam reimbursed me, so it was a free vacation.”
“To Belarus?”
“Not many people get to see Belarus.” She added, muttering, “Or get the opportunity to navigate its healthcare system.”
The Belarus jaunt was always spoken of in joking terms in her family, on both sides. Her mother had thought she was mad for going. But in truth, Grace had jumped at the chance, because Sam’s turning to her during that crisis had made her feel like an essential Oliver family member. Not the odd man out, which is how she usually thought of herself.
The look in Steven’s eyes told Grace that he had been using the time she was on the phone with Ben to chew over their dad’s situation. “Last month, I was driving Dad to Llano to eat barbecue, and halfway there he asked me where I was taking him.”
Grace thought about this for a moment. “The trouble is, we can probably come up with lots of anecdotes about his forgetting things, but what we need is to get him to agree to see a doctor. You need to broach the subject with him.”
“Me?”
“You’re a doctor. He respects you.”
The back door shut and Iago jogged into the kitchen, followed by the sound of Lou’s crutch-thump gait. Grace’s gaze met her brother’s, and by the time their father reached the kitchen, they were both mutely staring into their coffee cups as if not a word had passed between them since he had left.
“The dognapper scooted back over to his house. You know what he wanted? To apologize for stealing my dog and then to hit me up for a job! He wants to walk Iago twice a day.”
“Not a bad idea,” Steven said, studying Iago’s flesh jiggling as he perched before his water bowl. The kitchen echoed with the sound of dog tongue slapping water.
“You can’t take Iago out on walkies now,” Grace pointed out.
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