Dearest Wounded & Healing. I’m Going To Tell You A Story: Chapter Two

Reminder: This is the story of Clare. Like most of my fictional characters, and many people I’ve learned to love, Clare speaks with a Tennessee accent. She smokes when the urge strikes, cusses a lot, and she prefers whiskey over wine. Clare has known very little happiness in her life, so her story is filled with hard truths and ugly details not suitable for young audiences. But she still has a sense of humor.

FAMILY DINNER

CHAPTER TWO



Loss carves up a person, hollows out little spaces inside that must be filled with something. Filled all the way to the top with pain or painkillers, bitterness, shame, hate, anger, denial, wanting, wanting. Loss of a father, long before he was in the ground. Loss of a friend who chose death rather than continue suffering loss after loss. Self-respect, childish dreams, innocence, all lost. Space for vital things hollowed out, filled up, and so it goes. Hope doesn’t have enough mass to do the job. Painkillers don’t last long. The hollowed-out spaces must be filled with something solid, or they ache, haunt.

The sun is coming up as I turn off the highway two miles from Shannon’s house. She finally went for a nap at three thirty. I’m punch drunk and sandy-eyed, and really didn’t need this sad landscape lit up by the morning sun. I know every square inch. And I hate it.

When I pull up in the driveway, Uncle JR is sitting on Shannon’s porch. He looks good for his age but walks like a man a hundred years older.

“I got a fresh pot of coffee, Clare. Don’t feel beholdin’ to have some, go on and take a nap if you’d rather.”

“Thanks, I’ll definitely take the nap now, coffee later.”

“Shannon’s got you a mattress down in the baby’s room. I’ll be here when you get up. That doctor will be able to meet y’all at eleven. Shannon probably already said … Jason and Mike can’t make it.”

“Yeah.”

I let him give me a hug, pat me on the back. “Sure am sorry, girl. Y’all been through so much. Tiptoe on in there, now. All the kids are still asleep.”

“Alright, thanks, JR. I’ll see y’all later.”

He shuts the front door quietly behind me. I can smell the fresh brewed coffee and Maggie’s baby lotion as I tiptoe through the house to the tiny nursery. I don’t even take off my coat, just sprawl on that twin mattress and hope Shannon can’t hear me crying.

***

The rims of my eyes are a scalding red when I stand before the bathroom mirror at ten o’clock. Outside the bathroom door, it sounds like the boys are ripping the house to pieces, and the baby is giggling so hard I smile despite feeling like I got murdered in my sleep. I take my time washing my face, brushing my teeth, searching for eye drops. Then, slowly, I put on makeup and get dressed in a fresh outfit of jeans and a sweater. When my hair is brushed back into a ponytail, I put all my travel toiletries away and scroll the few contacts in my cell phone. I call Jason first.

“Who’s this?”

“Surprise.”

“What, for real?”

“Kiss my ass, you sorry shit. Be at Shannon’s before dark.” I really regret the days of cell phones. There’s no satisfaction in just pressing a red button. Next, I call Mikey.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Mikey. I’m at Shannon’s.”

“Clare? Hey! I thought you lived in Memphis now?”

“I do, but there’s a lot of crazy inventions called cars and highways and not being a total shithead. Get here before dark.”

Again, no satisfaction.

“Clare, I made fresh coffee. Are you hungry?” Shannon’s voice carries through the bathroom door, over the noise her children are making.

Rather than shouting to answer her, I step out into the hallway and walk to the kitchen carrying my backpack. Shannon has the baby on her hip while she pours a cup of coffee. There is something delicious cooking in the oven. The scent of her magic biscuits makes me feel a little better.

 Eric and Eli are arguing over a brightly colored box of cereal. My tween nieces run to me, grinning and shouting in unison. “Clare Care Bear! We missed you!”

“Hi sweeties. What’s for breakfast?”

***

Mama looks like a skeleton with great hair. She’s sitting up in bed wearing a fuzzy pink sweater and striped shawl. She doesn’t smile when I walk into the room, but her eyes get a bit brighter.

“Clare Michelle, you look so pretty. When did you start wearing makeup like that? All grown up.”

I bend down to kiss her cheek. One of her bony hands touches my face.

“Have you seen Shannon? She never sleeps, has dark circles under her eyes. I’d love to see her with pretty makeup like that. How long has it been since you talked to your brothers?

“About thirty minutes ago, Mama. I brought you some of Shannon’s biscuits. She makes the best.”

The hint of a smile flutters around Mama’s thin mouth, “Just like my mama, that woman could cook cardboard and make you like it. Just give me half of one, sugar. I already had breakfast.”

I half a biscuit, then wrap the rest in Shannon’s red tea towel and open a thermos of hot chocolate. There is an empty cup on Mama’s side table. I pour it half full.

“Here you go, the girls insisted I bring you hot chocolate. Said it’s your favorite.”

“Aren’t they the sweetest? Good thing, ‘cause the boys are a couple of bulldozers. Sit down, Clare, tell me all about Memphis. How is college? Shannon said you’re working at some place downtown with a chef. What’s that like?”

I sit in the chair closest to her bed, hold on to that bony hand reaching for me. “I love school, Mama. I’ve learned to type sixty words per minute, and I’m taking an accounting class. The Tavern, well, it’s something. When you walk in, at first it just looks like a regular old bar, there’s pool tables and all this copper and brass. But there are two dining rooms, one on each side of the front of house, and another, a private dining room upstairs. All very beautiful, polished, and everything the chef makes has a French name.”

Her eyes brighten even more, she pats my hand, never touches that biscuit or hot chocolate. She asks me question after question, until I tell her it’s time for me to go.

“We’re meeting with your doctor in a few minutes. I’ll be back as soon as we’re done.”

She manages the strength to frown at me. “No more chemo, Clare, no more of that radiation. I still have nightmares about yellow vomit and my insides being on fire.”

I wipe away tears and nod, let her squeeze my hand. “Whatever you want, Mama.”

“I hate that I’m gonna die with cancer in me, but I’m gonna die. I had me a happy marriage and beautiful children, so I’m alright with dying this young, and this horrible lookin’. So, you don’t worry about me, sweet Surprise. Take care of Shannon. You’re the only one strong enough to do it.”

“I will.”

She smiles then, it saps her strength. In a low whisper she says, “Kiss me goodbye. It’s time for my nap.”

***

I have to hide in the nearest restroom to cry for five minutes. When I get to the office where Shannon sits like a pale whisp of cloth on a chair across from the oncologist, all I want is a bottle of whiskey and a cigarette. But I make myself go in and face him—the man who will confirm that my mother is dying faster than Shannon wants to believe.

He’s younger than I expected. Fine boned, and tidy as a pin in his white doctor’s coat, navy shirt, and silver tie. He stands, shakes my hand. As soon as I sit, Shannon clutches at my left arm.

“I wish I had better news, ladies, but I’m afraid your mother can’t survive any known treatment in her current condition, it’s unlikely that she would survive in the weeks it would take us to schedule any treatments. Surgery is out of the question. I have brought the paperwork that will allow her to be moved to palliative care.”

“You said six months.”

“No, Mrs. Jones, I said no more than six months. That’s before the final results came in. I apologize for-“

I’m bringing her home,” Shannon says flatly. “Tomorrow morning, so do you have any paperwork for that?”

He doesn’t look at Shannon. He looks at me. His Adams Apple bobs up and down, his eyes lower. “Mrs. Caldwell doesn’t have much time. In fact, I would be pleasantly surprised if she lasts until February. Her care in that time will require professionals. Around the clock professionals. I’m sorry.”

Shannon’s grip is cutting off the blood flow to my left arm. I stare at the doctor until he finally lifts his eyes again, looks at me directly.

“We want to bring her home tomorrow. Show us what papers to sign.”

***

When I park in Shannon’s driveway again, her sons are running wild right alongside Mike’s two kids, Evan and Ginger. Jason is sprawled on a chair beside Uncle JR on the front porch, and Mikey is holding Maggie, grinning at her as she babbles and talks baby nonsense. Shannon stays in my car, sobbing her heart out.

When I walk up to the porch, Jason glares at me. Mikey, oblivious as always, waves Maggie’s little hand at me and says in a baby voice, “Hi, Auntie Clare.” I ignore Mikey and turn my attention to the eldest of us.

Jason and I glare at one another as he says, “Don’t ever talk to me like that again, like you did this morning, little sister. I’ll have to teach you some manners.”

“Why don’t you get down here and try it now, shithead.”

Jason moves to stand up, JR pushes him back into his chair. “Y’all call a truce. Mikey, go get Shannon out of the car. Poor thing. Clare, take a deep breath. What did the doctor say? How bad is it?”

Without looking away from my jerk of a brother, I tell JR, “Bad as bad gets. She won’t live much longer. Maybe a couple of weeks.”

I watch as Jason goes pale. He drops his eyes. That’s better. Only then do I look up at my uncle. “I need a drink, sir. And one of your bonfires. And another drink.”

JR nods. “My boys will be here soon. I’ll call down to Kari, she’ll bring what we need.”

***

I can name exactly two good things about being in the country: there’s plenty of good moonshine close by and room enough for a big old bonfire. The only good thing about winter is it gets dark early enough to have both at a decent hour of the day. Kari and JR take all the kids with them, leave us with a table full of barbecue and two pints of peach pie, Kari’s best well-aged shine. I’m not feeling the cold anymore after four sips.

JR’s bonfire is crackling, a good two hundred yards from Shannon’s back porch. The flames are six feet wide and eight feet high. Jason and Mike are somber, sitting on lawn chairs, staring at the flames. Shannon is a frozen ghost, sitting between them. Our cousin Darrin, JR’s eldest grandson, is sitting cross legged on the grass strumming a guitar.

I like Darrin. He’s smart, quiet, and good with the guitar. I recognize the tune—Mama, I’m Coming Home, by Lynyrd Skynyrd. He’s playing it softly, not singing, just staring into the flames with a serene expression on his face. He, Jason, and Mikey could pass for triplets. All the men in the Caldwell family look the same, broad shouldered, dark haired, too damn pretty for their own good. And when they age, their dark hair turns salt and pepper, they grow lush gray beards.

Fifty percent of them are dead with some horrible disease before age sixty-five, but the others live to old, old age, and have bastards strewn around the tri-county area. Like it’s a family tradition worth upholding. Daddy had three, over in Talbot County. They’re all very close to my age.

I glance at Jason. He’s thirty-seven and it’s rumored that he has eight unclaimed kids, but I know there’s three. Just like Daddy. At least Jason has had the decency to stay unmarried. He can be called a lot of things, but an adulterer isn’t one of them. So far, Mikey is the only Caldwell man in history to stay faithful to his wife and not have a gambling addiction, or drug addiction of one kind or another. But Mikey never so much as stepped off the porch without permission when he was a kid. He is an anomaly.

I light a cigarette and stand up. “Here’s what we’re going to do. Mikey, Jason, y’all go clear out the nursery. Put everything in Shannon’s room. Neatly. Then go down to Mama’s house, get that tall blue vase, and her painting of the irises in the living room. Her rocking chair. I’ll vacuum, dust, empty the closet. I’ll drive over to Turning, get groceries stocked up for Shannon so she doesn’t have to worry about that. The Hospice nurse will be here tomorrow morning, get the room outfitted with all the equipment, so we need to be ready. The ambulance-“

Jason interrupts me. “Sit down, bossy boss. We’re contemplating mortality while drinking by the fire. There’s time for all that other shit later.”

I give him my best killer glare and keep talking, “As I was saying. The ambulance will be here with Mama at three o’clock. The night nurse I hired will arrive with her, help get her settled. By then, we’ll have a schedule outlined to help Shannon. Y’all are going to chip in for utilities, and Shannon’s rent.

Jason stands up so abruptly he knocks over his lawn chair. “Sit the fuck down, Clare,” Jason’s voice is mean, but the expression on his face is meaner.

“You sit the fuck down, Jason. Shannon is the only one of us who can help take care of Mama day-to-day, we’re going to handle everything else, me, you, and Mikey. So finish your drink, and get in the nursery, and start moving furniture, and when you’re done, go to the nearest fuckin’ ATM and withdraw five hundred dollars to give to Shannon. And when the time comes to call you for the funeral, show up on time, in a suit and behave like a decent human being. When the funeral is over, go back to whatever shit-“

“Jesus, Clare. Settle down,” Mikey comes to stand between me and Jason, wearing a shocked expression. “You’re screaming like a maniac. Of course, Jason is going to help, I’m going to help. Chill out.”

In a faraway voice, Shannon finally speaks. “Michael don’t tell her to chill out. She has reason to be so angry with him.”

Jason shouts, “What? That was years ago! Get over it.”

Shannon stands, “Who are you telling to get over it, Jason, her, or me? Because I got over it way too easy. How can she possibly? She told me what happened, and I believe her. I’ve always believed her, but I never stood up with her and faced you down. I didn’t tell Mama. I didn’t demand that you apologize to Clare. I should have stayed angry. I should have stayed outraged, embarrassed, and ashamed of you, but I didn’t. Because that’s what I do. I absorb all these feelings, all these outrages and shame, and the very next day after someone I love has done something hateful or careless, I just carry on as if nothing happened. Well, I won’t be doing that anymore.”

Mike stares wide-eyed at Shannon, then at me, then at Jason. “What the hell are y’all even talking about?”

Jason goes truly stone faced. Shannon looks faint, she sits back down and puts her head in her hands.

“Surprise, what is this? Jason?” Mikey holds his arms out wide and looks from me to Jason. I finally get my temper and grief under control enough to speak.

“Two years ago- “

“Stop it, Clare. I didn’t … I didn’t mean-”

 “Two years ago, I went out with Jason and some of his friends, back when he was dating Stephanie, remember her?” The otherwise blissfully ignorant Mikey nods slowly.

Jason picks up his lawn chair and throws it into the bonfire. Darrin gets up off the grass, guitar still in hand, and comes to stand beside me as Jason points his finger at me and shouts, “I. Didn’t. Know!”

I step closer to Mike and in a lower voice, while he’s looking directly at me, I say, “We really partied that night. Drank a lot, got high. Jason drove to some dive bar across the river. He and Stephanie laughed at me because I was so fucked up, I couldn’t get out of the car. They left me there. They left me in the car. I passed out, not sure for how long, but when I woke up, someone was on top of me.”

“Oh my God.” Mikey looks as if I kicked him in the stomach. 

Darrin stands a little bit closer to me as Jason screams, “I didn’t know!”

I ignore all of them. Look into the flames. “Trevor and I dated for a while that summer, Trevor Mason. But I broke up with him because he was rough. Rough in a lot of ways, and it wasn’t long before being around him just wasn’t worth the trouble. I hadn’t seen him in a while, a few months, until I woke up in the back of Jason’s car with Trevor on top of me. He was just finishing up.”

Shannon vomits on her own shoes. Mike’s mouth goes chalky white. Jason sits down on the ground.

“Clare, I didn’t know.”

“You knew that you left me alone, barely conscious, in a car in the middle of the night outside a dive bar. Who’s to say if it hadn’t been Trevor, it could have been some other letch? For the better part of two years, I’ve had nightmare memories about waking up to being raped. Suffocating panic attacks. No, you didn’t know while it was happening, but you knew afterward. Because I told you what happened.”

“I’d been drunk for weeks, Clare. Stoned out of my fuckin’ head.”

Jesus Christ.” Mikey sobs the words, breathlessly. Shannon is sobbing, gagging.

“You didn’t take me to the hospital, you didn’t apologize, you didn’t call the cops. You dropped me off at Stephanie’s house, then you didn’t speak to me for two years. You didn’t show up when Shannon called to say Mama was in a nursing home, but you finally show up now, eyeing me, scolding me like I’m some bratty little kid. Go move the goddamn furniture.”

He looks at me for a long time, eyes gone so dark they reflect the flames of the bonfire. Finally, he stands, brushes off his jeans, and walks away. Mikey makes a sound, a wounded animal sound, then looks at me with sad eyes.

“That’s why you left.”

I take a sip of whiskey, flick my cigarette into the fire. “I was going to leave anyway. Eventually. That just got me motivated to go sooner.”

“Are you … are you okay?”

Darrin sighs heavily beside me. Moves a little closer. Mike scrubs his face with one hand and shakes his head.

“Dumb question. I’m sorry, honey.”

My throat feels like it’s closing up. “Go help Shannon to bed. Then move the nursery furniture. Please.”

Mikey gives me one last sad look, then turns to walk away.

“What do you want me to do, Clare?” Darrin asks. I sit down on the grass and light another cigarette.

“Do you know how to play anything besides Skynyrd songs?”

He smiles down at me. “Of course.” And then he plays every song Johnny Cash ever sang.

I let Darrin’s music drown out the hateful things I want to keep screaming at my brother. The hateful memories that haunt me too often, the suffocating panic attacks, waking paralyzed, held down by Trevor and his hateful eyes. I look into the flames and decide to let all that go. The heartbreak and hateful words are poisoning me to death. I’m not ready to die. Please just burn it up, I whisper to the flames.

I let the chords strum away the image of my mother’s artifact of a body, and I think about her eyes instead. The bright shine of something deeper than love, something other. My mother has always loved me when we were face to face in a room together, just us. When I was a child, in our moments alone, she told me secret things. “Women are stronger than we get credit for, Clare Michelle. Women can see beauty, see trouble coming. Beauty of a sunrise. Beauty of a newborn’s face. They both come with trouble, those two most beautiful things in life. Sunrise means another day might try to take what belongs to you. Birthing a child doesn’t mean they were ever yours at all. Babies come into this world knowing who they are, knowing what they want. You wanted beauty to just be beautiful. You will spend the end of my lifetime finding just where you belong, just where trouble will want to sit down at your feet and behave itself.” It was at my father’s funeral when she spoke of what a good man he was that I realized Mama has always been a crazy person, surviving on her own delusions.

When the flames die down and Darrin’s guitar has gone quiet, I go into the house to clean the empty nursery. My brothers are gone, and Shannon is crying in her sleep.

***

Wednesday morning, when I’m two county lines from Juliet, I finally take a deep breath. When I’m home, I take a forty-five-minute shower, swallow a Benadryl, and go to bed.

I wake in the unlit suite smack in the middle of a panic attack, heart clawing to get out, legs paralyzed. Taking the Benadryl was a mistake. I chant mistake, mistake, mistake. Inhale. Exhale. I won’t do I again.

The allergy pill was supposed to make me rest. Instead, the effect was too close to being stoned, too close to being out of control, so my fucked-up brain went drunkenly searching for trauma to dig up. Begging the flames didn’t work. I’ll have to live with fighting this shit forever, won’t I? I’ll have to stay sober. I’ll have to keep myself safe.

I force my eyes to stay wide open. When my legs can move, I stand, go turn on every light in the suite. I’m okay. I’m safe.

***

Thursday afternoon, I have the pelvic ultrasound. The whole procedure is shockingly uncomfortable. By five o’clock, I have a clean bill of health from Dr. Michaels.

“You’re considering becoming a surrogate?”

“Yes. Before applying with an agency, I need you to sign off on all these test results, verifying that I’m a good candidate. Will you?”

“Physically, you’re an outstanding candidate. A psychiatric evaluation is also required to complete your application. After you meet with a board-certified psychologist, we would both have to agree to verify your candidacy. The front desk will have a list of psychologists that work with this hospital. Be sure to notify my nurse when you’ve made an appointment.”

It’s obvious that she can see the fear in my eyes. The self-doubt, the haunting. “Thanks,” I say quietly. When I get up to leave. Dr. Michaels’ mouth is a hard straight line.

***

When I’m driving to The Tavern, Shannon calls. “We had the best day, Clare, better than I could have hoped for!”

“Yeah? How so?”

“I let the kids stay home from school since Mike’s kids were still here. We made cookies from one of Mama’s recipes, and we all snuggled in her room, watching old movies. The kids were so well behaved, and Mama smiled almost the entire day. Thank you for helping to make this happen. Mike and JR went to talk to Marty, took him a suitcase I’d packed. JR assured me he won’t be back. Mike paid my utility bill and bought Mama the prettiest flowers to go in her blue vase. She loved having both her boys here so much. Jason is over at her house now, with JR. Mikey just left for home about an hour ago.”

“I’m so glad you such a nice day.”

“There’s one more thing. Jason and Mikey … I told them what you’ve been doing, paying Mama’s mortgage, my rent, all the medical bills. Jason got this look on his face that, well, it’s like he just realized in that second that we’ve had this entire ordeal he was oblivious to for the last two years. He hired people to work on Mama’s house. The roof is fixed, the fence is fixed, and there are new faucets in the kitchen and bath, and he paid my rent up for two months. He wants to know the details for the rest of Mama’s bills, so he can help.”

I sit silently in the driver’s seat of my car waiting for a traffic light to turn green. Waiting for the courage to explain to my sister why Jason can’t be paying the bills.

“Clare? Did I lose you?”

“Shannon …”

“Yeah? Is something wrong with your cell phone? You sound funny.”

“Hold on, I’m going to pull over.”

I go through the traffic light and pull into a convenience store parking lot. After taking a deep breath, I decide the best way to tell her is to just tell her.

“Don’t let Jason pay anymore bills.”

“Sweetie, I’m not saying that he’s made up for- “

“Shannon, listen to me. Don’t allow Jason to buy one more piece of lumber or pay one more cent on your bills. He’s a drug dealer. You cannot accept that kind of help from him.”

“That’s not … you told him to-“

“I told him to get five hundred dollars cash out of the ATM. I never told him to do all the rest. If he ever gets close enough to caught for the feds to come around to you, they could charge you with a crime, Shannon. Do you have any idea how many poor single mothers are in prison right now just for accepting support from drug dealers? It’s a stupid, barbaric law from the eighties, meant to intimidate women into turning in their own family members or boyfriends for the sake of the long lost ‘War on Drugs’.”

She stays silent for a long time. I can just imagine her face, the thoughts whirring through her mind.

Finally, she speaks. “If this is true … Clare, would he know that I could get in trouble?”

“I can’t hazard a guess at what Jason knows, or thinks, or wonders in the deep dark night. But now you know how he earns a living. So don’t let him-“

“Do you know for a fact that Jason … does that? Or is it just another rumor Stephanie Hardin spread around, like saying he has all those kids?”

“I know for a fact. Our brother is a drug dealer, has been since he was nineteen. And by the way, the thing about the kids is true, too, she just exaggerated the number.”

“Goddammit.”

“I’m sorry to ruin your day.”

I hear ice cubes bouncing into a glass and lay my head against the steering wheel. “I’m sorry, Shannon.”

“You’ve got nothing to be sorry for except not telling me sooner.”

***

Dennis surprises everyone by showing up half an hour before the dinner shift begins. He presents us all with a new wine, then demonstrates how to plate Jim’s latest creation—a delicate salmon dish with fluffy greens and a dab of rich sauce. The elusive Margarite is present, the server who hasn’t been to work since Wednesday before last, and another woman named Selly.

Dennis explains for my benefit that Margarite came along from New Orleans with him, Jim and Charles when The Tavern was just a grubby little corner bar. Dennis turns the wine over to her. We all watch as she deftly uncorks and pours. She describes the wine with an accent that is something exotic and mysterious, her voice, a velvety thing that should have its very own name.

She wears a sheath of black fabric that’s formed into a dress like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s sexy as hell, even though it covers every inch of her glossy dark skin from shoulders to knees. Her shoes are black stilettos, and her jet-black hair is worn like that dress, a straight, long dark sheath completely unadorned.

I’ve been called pretty all my life, and that’s nice enough. Standing next to Margarite, I feel like a chubby twelve-year-old boy in dirty overalls.

***

It’s not until nine o’clock, when I’m cashing out a table of eight who’s visiting from Minneapolis that I realize Margarite never came out on the floor. Amanda has a full house at the bar, and more people are being seated by the new hostess, Selly. She’s almost as sophisticated looking as Margarite. They hugged in the kitchen after the demonstration. Then they both hugged Dennis.

Eventually I work my way around to the bar. “I thought Margarite was serving tonight.” Amanda pours and shakes and pours. I reckon she’s too busy to pay attention, so I turn to walk away.

But I’ve taken just one step when Amanda says, in that flinty tone of hers, “Dennis is opening a new place in Nashville. Margarite got promoted. Just came by tonight to show off, then hug everyone, and drop the Selly bomb on us—her protégé. She actually used that fuckin’ twenty-five-dollar word. Protégé.”

“Oh.” Wow.

“If you haven’t noticed, Clare, this place is booming. Standing in one spot is not a wise decision.”

***

Selly, being hostess and all, gets to leave an hour before closing. I decide to get started on stocking the server areas since the few lingering guests are quietly sipping drinks or fondling desserts. So, I leave them to it and go back to storage for a case of napkins. Amanda is on the phone in the office.

“I’m either the manager or I’m not, Dennis … yeah, we definitely need experienced help, that I interview and hire, not some …whatya mean you thought I’d be happy? Her salary is obnoxious, and just an hour ago, she actually thought I was supposed to pay out a cut of the tips. MY TIPS. That’s not …”

I grab the napkins and run through the kitchen before Amanda sees me. Before she realizes that I just overheard all that. Wow.

When I’ve got the bar stocked, I look up to see Patrick propped on his pool cue staring at me. He smiles, nods hello from across the room while DJ and Pete argue about another something. I smile back at Patrick and go check on my last party table.

***

“Last Call, darlings!” Amanda makes the announcement with more cheer than shows on her flawlessly made-up face.

Within ten minutes, everyone has cleared out except for the legal eagles. When do these guys even study? I thought law school was supposed to be really hard.

As soon as I have that thought, DJ sits down with two beers at a booth I just cleaned. “Who’s the fairest of them all, Princess? You, that’s who. Have a beer with me.”

“You’re a hoot, DJ. I’ve got less than ten minutes to finish up. Don’t smudge that table.”

“Nah, Amanda’s in a mood. She’s over there flirting with Pete and pouring up martinis made with three-hundred-dollar vodka. It’s gonna be a long night.”

I look over my shoulder and sure enough, Amanda and Pete are all snuggly behind the bar, closer together than my tights are to my legs as they knock back drinks. Ernie is watching them with a sleezy expression on his face, and Patrick is watching me. I am certain I do not want to be part of this long night.

“Thanks for the offer of the beer, DJ, but I’ve got somewhere to be. Get off my clean booth, let me finish up.”

“Really? Do you have an aversion to gingers or something?”

I give him my best oh, you’re just adorable smile. “I don’t have an aversion to gingers or any other hair color. I’m just not interested in flirting right now.”

“Well, that’s disappointing. I’m really good at flirting.”

“Yes, you are. Now go away.”

Jake is in the kitchen when I start toward the backdoor. He looks nervous, shuffling his feet while crossing and uncrossing his arms. This is a look I’ve never seen on Jake before. As usual, the soft careful way he speaks takes me by surprise.

“Clare, do you think maybe … maybe you could get Amanda to take the party somewhere else? I’m supposed to set the alarm before 1:30.”

I look up at the kitchen clock. It’s 1:10 and I just passed Amanda having her fourth martini and some bump and grind behind the bar. “Where do I suggest she take the party to, Jake?”

He shakes his large head, continues to frown. “I don’t know. BB’s is open till three. Dennis won’t like this at all. The last time she did … well, he won’t like it. “

I cross my arms over my chest and look up at the gentle giant Jake. “Which do you think would go worse? Amanda’s reaction to me telling her to leave here, or Dennis dealing with the aftermath of whatever that is going on out there?”

“Definitely Dennis. You ain’t never seen him mad.” Jake points a finger in the direction of the bar. “That’s disloyalty. Me not standing my ground with her, not being able to control the situation, that’s me not fulfilling my duties, which is almost as bad as disloyalty as far as Dennis is concerned. Please help me, Clare. I don’t want to have to call him.”

I unwind my arms and turn reluctantly back the way I came. There’s no way I’m facing off with Amanda. If I’m bossy, she’ll cut my head off. If I go friendly and cheerfully suggest we all go somewhere else to party, she’ll know I’m full of shit. And then she’ll cut my head off. So, I go for option number three and peek out the door in hopes of catching Patrick’s eye. Patrick has proven to be a very skilled voice of reason more than once.

He’s there, still leaning against the pillar across from the bar, looking disgusted by the show happening behind the bar. I wave to him, but it takes almost a full minute to get his attention. He cocks his head a little with curiosity, then glances toward the left side of the bar. A moment later, he steps inside the kitchen.

“Clare, you might want to go. This is about to turn into-“

“I need your help to stop whatever that is. I know she’s mad about Selly, but that’s all I know. According to Jake, she’s been in trouble for this sort of thing before, and he’ll get in trouble in the alarm isn’t on by 1:30. Help me convince her to go down to BB’s? Or somewhere?”

Patrick’s frown disappears. He looks from me to Jake, then nods. “Okay. Give me a second.” He takes out his cell phone and slams his palm against the door, then shouts, “Hey, guys, you won’t believe who just texted me! Shane’s back in town!”

I don’t know who the hell Shane is, but Patrick is a genius. Amanda, Pete, DJ, and Ernie rush out of The Tavern, laughing and shouting with excitement. Amanda hauls that three-hundred-dollar bottle of vodka with her. I don’t say a word. When they’re all gone, I tidy up the bar, then meet Patrick and Jake at the backdoor. Jake locks up, then slaps Patrick on the back and chuckles.

“Nice job, Dunham. Brilliant. See y’all tomorrow night. You’ll walk Clare around the corner?”

“Sure Jake. Goodnight.”

I light a cigarette and watch Patrick’s face change from friendly to warm and wary. He’s close enough that I notice he smells delicious. And close enough that I notice he’s looking at me as if I might be delicious, or poisonous. He remains undecided.

“So, who’s Shane?”

“One of those guys who’s been everywhere, knows everyone. Always has the best liquor, flashiest car, prettiest girlfriends. Amanda and Pete were in his circle back at LSU.”

“But not you?”

“Not really.”

“And yet, he texted you to say he was back in town, partying at BB’s?”

“They’d swilled like a half-dozen martinis apiece—truth would have sounded like a lie to their ears.” He grins after delivering that bit of wisdom.

I laugh at his logic and turn to walk out of the alley. “How long before they realize you were lying?”

“I’m banking on them forgetting where they were rushing off to about a block down the street and just getting a cab home.”

I’m still smiling over that last comment when we reach my car. Patrick’s facial expression turns sour when he sees Old Hondo again.

“You seem to dislike my car.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Need a ride somewhere?”

His expression turns a bit sourer. He must realize he’s frowning, tries to compose himself. “I’m … no, I parked on the next tier. When’s the last time you bought tires, Clare?”

“Well,” I point to the rear right tire, “that one, I bought last September, the left one, I bought the June before, and the front two, a year ago this week.”

He can’t fight off the look of horror that crosses his face. I laugh out loud at the struggle. “Quite the snob, aren’t you, Patrick?”

“I don’t think so. It’s just …a car is very complex machine, and every kind, regardless of the make or model, can’t function at optimum potential unless all the correct components are in place. This car is a four-cylinder, front wheel drive that should have … why are you looking at me like that?”

“Old Hondo and I are doing the best we can with what we’ve got, and therefore, currently operating at optimum potential. Good night, Patrick.”

***

Friday after my shift at the Mallory, I make a stop at my favorite thrift store and find a haul of designer pantsuits, dressy dresses, and a leather trench coat that fits like it was made for me. The two pantsuits and the dress don’t, so I drop them off to be cleaned, altered, and pressed at the nearest dry cleaners. Then I rush over to TJ Max and buy an armful of sheer black tights and colorful scarves. I’m going to be awesome head to toe for Sunday Family Dinner.

***

Friday night Amanda is nowhere in sight when I walk right into the middle of Carmy and Selly arguing over sharing tips. I turn back around and go into the kitchen to watch Jim order his troops into formation. The specials tonight feature that yummy salmon thing and a crawfish etouffee. While Jim shouts commands and cusses in that rough pissed off truck driver cadence, I make myself useful and pick up a case of white wine to go put in the bar fridge.

When I return to the bar, Selly is gone and Carmy is steaming. “Can you believe that overdressed cu-“

“Whoa there, C-word. No no.” I’m smiling when I interrupt my favorite bartender, she is not smiling. But her anger quickly changes to impotent frustration.

“Dennis just called, apparently Selly texted him to complain about my non-compliance. We’ve each got to give her ten percent of our tips tonight.”

Last Friday I made just shy of two fifty. I’ve decided to think of Friday nights as bonus nights, considering the perks of working this shift include more than tips, thanks to Amanda giving me a heads up. Twenty-five bucks to a hostess isn’t going to kill any of us, but I guess I understand the irritation.

“This place is different from anywhere I’ve ever worked, so let me ask you … if a hostess is getting tipped from the servers, does she take care of them? Like no double seating, prep server areas, maybe schmooze the special guests?”

Carmy’s eyebrows arch dramatically. “God, I love you. Hey, Selly, come here, please.”

A bargain is soon struck. Friday nights are three-band showcase nights, and often when a local celebrity something or another will expect special attention, like the food critic last week, and those record label guys. Tonight, Carmy is expecting local radio executives and a reporter who’s wants to feature The Tavern in a tour Memphis article, neither of which Dennis can be here to meet.

The sophisticated Selly handles them all like a dream. The night goes smooth as pie, and at midnight, Carmy and I gladly pay out our ten percent. Sly and Devin are a bit harder to convince until Carmy points out that tomorrow night could go even better, and they’re guaranteed to make up the difference. Selly leaves with more than a hundred bucks, the server areas are immaculate, and nobody died.

The only strange thing about the night, is the glaring absence of the legal eagles. As we’re walking out the back door, I ask Carmy about that.

“Some kind of networking event is this weekend—second years get to meet attorneys and judges from all over, schmooze a bit before submitting their applications to intern for the summer. Apparently, it’s one of those make ya or break ya things. DJ was a nervous wreck about it yesterday. If he didn’t calm down, he’s spent the last several hours spazzing about making a fool of himself spazzing on some senior partner from some slick law firm. He has impulse control issues if you haven’t noticed. “

“And Patrick?”

Carmy cocks her head and grins. “And Patrick?” she mimics. My expression must be hilarious because she laughs her ass off, then lights a cigarette and laughs some more as Jake exits the backdoor and locks up.

“It’s not like that, Carmy,” I say in a voice that’s flatter than a board.

“Of course, it’s not,” she says slyly. Then, in a more serious tone, “Patrick doesn’t have to schmooze. The big suits schmooze him. He’s some kind of phenom with contracts or tax law, or something. It’s really hard to pay attention to everything DJ blathers on about. But, besides all his phenom skills, Patrick is also baby brother to the most famous attorney in Nashville, so he doesn’t really have to worry about summer job placement. Nepotism is no faux pas in that set, it’s expected, I guess. By the way, you think Patrick is fine, you should see big brother. Good god. He’d make a dead woman faint. And check this out, his name is Fallon. I swear. Rich folks have no decency whatsoever.”

I don’t really know what to say to all that.

Carmy must realize it’s all gone over my head. She coughs away a laugh, flicks away her cigarette, and says, “Thanks for your help. Making peace with Selly was the only way out of the mess Amanda made, then Selly ratting me out only made things worse. You saved me from stabbing her with a bar tool.”

“You’re welcome.”

***

Two o’clock Sunday morning, I count out my tips earned at The Tavern since Thursday and come up with a total that makes me grin like a lunatic. One thousand, seventy-three dollars, and twenty-six cents. I repeat the total over and over while flipping through my binders and recalculating my budget for February.

It’s not until I’m half-dozing, still grinning, that I realize I haven’t spoken to Shannon in two days.

***

I’m only a minute early for Family Dinner, no one is waiting around in the alley. As I walk in, I can hear voices streaming from the dining room, and it’s a struggle to stay on course, not go check my reflection again. 

My hair is loose, my makeup as close to subtle but perfect as I can get. I’m wearing that gorgeous red trench coat—I Googled the label and found out it’s a knock off of Valentino’s vegan leather design from a few years ago. Retailed at $1000, I got it for $45.

Underneath my treasured coat, I’m wearing a black Michael Kors pantsuit with a wildly patterned pastel scarf draped under the collar. I’m too stingy to go do more shoe shopping, so I’m grateful the pumps I bought a few weeks ago no longer cripple me. I did splurge again on flowers, though. More white roses, this time arranged with baby’s breath and white poofs of hydrangea.

Dennis and Margarite are standing, heads close together, just outside the dining room doors, talking quietly. When my heels clack past the pool tables, he lifts his head and smiles.

“You brought flowers again. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to charm me, Clare.”

I manage a lopsided smile, “Is it working?”

He laughs out loud, takes the flowers, and bends down to pretend kiss my cheek. “Go on in and sit beside Patrick. Carmen and Selly are serving today.”

As if he’s heard Dennis’s instructions, Patrick stands when I enter the dining room and pulls out the chair next to him. His eyes are a warm, not wary. Dark lashes, dark brows, all combine to intensify those looks he gives me. I sit down, he keeps one hand on the back of my chair as he sits, leans forward to pour a glass of ice water, not whatever wine is gracing the table today. He’s noticed I don’t drink the wine.

Thinking that all of his gestures are welcoming and familiar, and it’s odd that he hasn’t spoken, I decide to start the conversation. “Heard you guys had an eventful weekend.”

He smirks, lets go of the back of my chair and looks toward Dennis and Margarite still conferring on the other side of the doorway. “Eventful is a good word.” That smirk of his seems to be pointed beyond me, not in response to my comment at all.

When his gaze returns to me, he says, “So, how was the road trip?”

“The trip was fine. Surrounded by family problems until Tuesday night, about as awful as I expected.”

He starts to say something else when Carmy announces, “It’s a four-course meal today, darlings!” as she and Selly haul in trays of amazing looking food. As those two are serving, everyone at the table stare at the dishes with ecstasy plain on their faces. When Jim enters, he receives a standing ovation. He bows graciously, and Dennis finally pulls himself away from the conference with Margarite.

“Congratulations, Jim, you’ve outdone yourself. Welcome, everyone, let’s get started. Amanda, would you introduce the wine, please?”

***

Jim passes out To Go plates as each of us file out of the dining room. Patrick stays close to me. I’ve noticed throughout dinner that he and DJ haven’t spoken, haven’t joined in the same conversation topic with others. I suspect a spat.

Dennis, Margarite, Amanda, Carmy, and Selly, stay behind, huddled near the window in the dining room as the rest of us depart. Outside the backdoor, DJ is waiting with a hot glare to point at Patrick. In response, Patrick tosses him a keyring, then a pack of smokes after removing one for himself.

He lights up, I stand a bit off to the side, waiting for the hair pulling to begin.

DJ growls, “Smug bastard. I asked for one fucking favor. It’s bad enough you’ve got Snow White, but you couldn’t-“

“Do what now?” I ask, interrupting the pink-faced DJ who’s working up to some more accusations. “Are you talking about me? No one’s got me.”

Patrick smokes his cigarette silently while glaring in DJ’s general direction. DJ’s eyes glint in my direction. “C’mon. You turn me down flat but every time I look around y’all are whispering to each other?”

Finally, Patrick speaks, “You’re out of line, about that and all the rest of it DJ. I don’t control what decisions my brother makes. I told you I’d pass your resume along to Fallon, and I did.”

“Then why did Jacob Par get the internship, and not me?”

“Maybe because Jacob Par graduated summa cum laude from UV and is the top second year at Vandy Law. Everyone is courting that dude. Your anger is misguided, son. Back off.”

Okay, that’s enough. I don’t understand any of this and don’t need to listen to it. With a glance at DJ’s face that’s going from pink to the same shade of red as my coat, I start walking down the alleyway. Their argument keeps going. I keep walking.

***

On the drive home, I dial Shannon’s number. She sounds sleepy when she answers.

“Hiya, kiddo.”

“Hey, Shannon. I can call back if you’re napping.”

“Nah, been up for a few minutes. The nurse is in with Mama. Did you go to another of those fancy dinners?”

“Sure did. Apparently, in France, making a casserole out of sausage, cheese, and a bunch of leftover vegetables is the height of gourmet cuisine best served with two-hundred-dollar wine.”

“Since when do you like wine?”

“Can’t stand the stuff. But I can’t very well bring my favorite cheap bourbon to these lovely dinners, can I? How are you?”

“Tired, as usual.”

I wait for a minute, wait for her to elaborate, give news, something.

“Shannon?”

“He denied it. Said you don’t know what you were talking about. Jason isn’t a drug dealer. All that’s in the past.”

“Recent past, like yesterday?”

“He’s a project manager for a construction company over in Talbot County. He’s been off the hard stuff for over a year, hasn’t been near the old crowd for longer than that.”

“Good for him.”

“Clare, I can’t … it breaks my heart to see y’all so mad at each other. The way you talked so hateful to one another Sunday night. Y’all used to be so close. Would you think about giving him the benefit of the doubt?”

“Honey, I don’t give a shit if he calls me a liar to my face or otherwise. I don’t give a shit if he’s the biggest drug dealer or thief, or televangelist Juliet ever saw. I told you the truth about him as I know it because I don’t want his dirty money getting you in trouble. I don’t want you getting stuck taking selfish assholes at their word anymore, doling out a bit of attention and making you feel grateful for it. Please don’t worry about mine and Jason’s relationship, Shannon. You’ve got enough on your plate right now.”

Shannon sighs loudly into the phone. I hear voices in the background.

“What’s going on?”

“Nothing, that’s just the nurse on the phone … she’s getting Mama’s prescriptions straightened out at the pharmacy. The baby’s up, I’ve got to go, Clare. Talk to you tomorrow?”

“Sure. Love you, sis.”

***

Wednesday after the lab delivery shift, I go for my psych eval. Dr. Tommie Gray looks like a gracefully aging supermodel, sleek and casual in jeans, a blazer, and alligator pumps. She smiles just with her mouth, and gestures for me to have a seat on an easy chair that’s fixed between two bright windows across from her desk.

She asks a bunch of standard get-to-know you questions listed on a piece of paper she holds twelve inches away from her face as she peers through reading glasses. I answer all of the questions. She puts the piece of paper down, removes the glasses, then places her long, slender arms on her desk and leans forward.

“Why do you want to be a surrogate, Clare?”

“At this point, I’m just wanting to see if I meet the requirements to apply to be a surrogate, gathering as much information as possible.”

One of Dr. Gray’s auburn eyebrows arches prettily. “That’s an interesting fact to point out—you’re taking this in stages then? Not totally committed?”

“I’m reading through Linda Oliver’s book about surrogacy, then I’ve got another to … yes, stages.”

“What made you decide to pursue the stages toward applying to be a surrogate?”

“The money.”

“Ah.”

“Why else would any twenty-four-year-old get pregnant for someone else, Dr. Gray? Unless the someone else is a dear friend who can’t have their own? I don’t have any dear friends, not anymore.”

“An interesting thought process, very interesting caveat. You don’t have dear friends, anymore?”

This lady is very irritating. I try to not show my irritation. “Katie was my best friend through school. She wanted a baby more desperately than anyone I’ve ever met, earlier than anyone I’d ever heard talk about wanting babies. Had four miscarriages between seventeen and nineteen.”

“And?”

“And?”

“She is no longer your friend. Why?”

“Because she killed herself.”

Dr. Gray’s posture relaxes a bit, she sits back in her chair and eyes me like a cat would eye a limping mouse.

“I see from your patient file that you’re from Juliet, Tennessee. I don’t know much about the area. If I were to do research, would I find that suicide rates are high among women in, say, the age ranges of eighteen to thirty-five? As well as alcoholism and drug use?”

“Along with unemployment and domestic violence. There are plenty of sad little statistics back there, I’m sure.”

“And Memphis is as far away as you’ve gotten in your escape.” She makes the statement quietly, then sits with her fingers steepled and her lips pursed.

“What would you do with the money, Clare? The standard surrogate payment starts at forty thousand dollars.”

“Go to university. Seems like a good trade off. Some rich couple gets what they want most, I get what I want.”

“Do you still have relationships in Juliet? Family members?”

I nod.

“And you lend financial support to those family members?”

I can’t quite keep the scathing out of my voice when I say, “Guessing games. Do you have any other party tricks?” She almost smiles. I find that very interesting.

“Tell me about your plan for never going back to Juliet. Why do you send money to your family, Clare?”

Never going back was the only solid plan I had. But I’m still obligated to visit. I can’t totally leave Shannon behind, can I?

“My sister … she’s married to a drunk cheat, but he hasn’t hit her since that time he woke up in the barn with his balls tied… well, he doesn’t hit her anymore. When our mother got sick, that’s when Shannon reached the end of whatever rope Marty had her swinging from for ten years. She reached the end, and she yanked real fuckin’ hard. I’m proud of her for that. But Marty is a sorry shit. The only power he had left over her was to withhold money. A little more, month by month, until she and her kids were about to be evicted. Then Mama had to be put in a nursing home, but we couldn’t bear the thought of losing her land, the house we grew up in. So, I came here and started to make more money than any factory in Juliet ever paid, and I worked out a way to cover their bills and mine, then I started classes that would guarantee I never had to work in a factory again.”

After another moment of silence, Dr. Gray returns to sitting up straight in her desk chair, reaches for a fancy silver pen and starts scribbling on loose papers splayed across her desk.

“What percentage of your earnings do you keep for yourself? Rough estimate?”

I’m about to lose my patience with this woman. “About forty percent.”

“So, closer to thirty? Do you have a savings account? A permanent place to live?”

“I have a savings account. Dr. Michaels didn’t say anything about you evaluating my finances.”

Dr. Gray sighs delicately and turns a piercing gaze on me. “Have you ever traveled by plane, Clare?”

I shake my head. No.

“When you board, while the plane is still in the terminal, a flight attendant addresses all the passengers. He or she points out all the exits, then discusses the emergency plans. In the event of loss of air pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling. Passengers are instructed to secure their own oxygen mask before trying to assist anyone else, even their own child sitting in the next seat. Loss of air pressure is incredibly dangerous for a midair flight. Difficult to recover from. Forgive the analogy, but you and your family, besides all the other issues, have lost air pressure, financially speaking. Clare, you need to secure your own oxygen mask. You cannot be a help to anyone else in crisis when suffering your own. This plane is going down.”

That analogy nauseates me. I take a shaky breath and look away from her piercing eyes.

“I’m grateful that you decided to pursue the stages of qualifying to become a surrogate, otherwise, we would have never met. Please understand that my goal at this point is to help ensure you never have to return to Juliet or any place like it, figuratively or literally. My goal is to help you stabilize in midflight. All the rest of it … we can deal with later.”

She picks up that pen again, writes in silence for a while as I try to breathe normally and not throw up. Then she stands, walks around her desk, and gestures for me to stand as well. She hands me a paper. I look down at it but can’t quite decipher what she’s written. My eyes won’t focus.

“I’ve written time slots that I’m available over the next month. Check those slots against your own schedule, then speak with my receptionist. I want to meet with you at least twice each week, over the next four. Between now and the next appointment, I’d like for you to make some lists. Let’s call it homework. All the assignments are there on that paper. I hope to see you again soon.” She steps away, gestures toward her door as my cue to leave.

When my hand is on the doorknob, I turn to look at her. There is no smile sitting on her mouth, her face is all cobwebby—that expression people have when they’re thinking about a distant past.

“Dr. Gray, I don’t have health insurance. I can’t afford-”

“I know. That’s one of your objectives in the homework. See you soon, Clare.”

I’m almost out the door when I decide the question has to be asked before I take another step. “Does this mean you don’t think I’d make a good surrogate?”

She blinks and that cobwebby expression disappears. “Clare, I think you can do anything you decide to do, until one day you can’t. I think you will continue to push all of your emotions away, deny, deny, deny every hurt that’s eating away at you, and work yourself right into the ground. I would like to help you learn about self-care, and as I said, stabilize, before you go making anymore huge life-changing decisions. I hope you will allow me to help.

I don’t have an explanation for why Dr. Gray’s voice, her matter-of-fact statements, her piercing questions, and piercing eyes have turned my whole world upside down. All I can do is sit in my car in the parking lot outside her office crying for twenty minutes.

***

I stick to my gym routine but skip the pool and go soak in my tub while reading through Dr. Gray’s homework assignments. Now that my emotions are under control, I have to admit that money earned versus what I’ve spent on my own living expenses, school, and savings is troublesome. If something were to happen, if I get laid off or sick, there will be no way to support myself because I’ve saved so little. That’s bad enough, but two non-negotiable requirements of becoming a surrogate are health insurance and a permanent address.

This desperate life I’ve been building is unsustainable. My plane is going down, it’s gonna crash land me right back in fuckin’ Juliet.

***

Thursday morning, I arrive at the Mallory fifteen minutes early in hopes of catching Marlena in a decent mood. Just in case she’s not, I bring along a strawberry cream tart and vente caramel macchiato. She’s sitting behind her desk, working on next week’s schedule when I tap on the open office door. Without a word, I put the cup and pastry bag on her desk, then sit in the rickety little chair meant to deter employees from lingering.

Her expression changes from quizzical, to delighted, to wary. “What do you want, Clare?”

I smile pleasantly and say,” I’ve been here a year, working on a 24 hour per week schedule. According to the employee handbook, 28 hours is full-time and qualifies for benefits. If you put me on a 28-hour schedule, according to the handbook, after sixty days at full-time, insurance benefits can start.”

“I suppose you expect a raise, too.”

“I’m not asking for a raise. I just need the hours. I don’t even care if I get fully assigned to the laundry.”

Marlena can’t resist the coffee any longer. I keep my posture straight and my hands in my lap as she reaches for the cup, takes a sip. After her second sip, she nods.

“I’ll have a look at the schedule. Let you know something this afternoon.”

Just as I’m getting up, she says, “Hold on. Didn’t you say last fall that you take classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays? And now you work nights at some bar? And don’t you also work for a delivery service? That slims down availability a lot. Why not ask the other day job for more hours?”

I sit back down in that rickety chair. “Technically, I’m contracted through a third party to deliver for the lab, and that contract is for three more months at a maximum of ninety-six hours per month. That job will never offer insurance. As for my availability, I can work 3:30-10 on Monday evenings.

“That’s a lot to ask, for me to overlook traditional scheduling just for you.”

“Well, I’d be grateful for whatever you can do. I just had to pay out eight hundred dollars for medical appointments that would have cost me less than two hundred with insurance. And I haven’t been to a dentist since I was nineteen. I’d be grateful. And you know that I’m dependable.”

After another sip of that six-dollar coffee, Marlena gives me a royal nod. “I’ll let you know this afternoon. You’re on the fourth floor today with Darlene.”

“Thank you.”

***

At two o’clock, I find an envelope taped to my locker—I now have Mondays 4-9 added to my schedule, which brings my total up to 29 hours per week. Also in the envelope is a form to opt in for insurance and 401(k). Medical insurance will cost either $65 per week or $80 per week, depending on what coverage I choose. Dental is extra. The company will match up to 12% percent of my 401(k) contributions which can be as much as 8% of my weekly gross, and like the insurance, those contributions are pre-tax. All can go into effect within thirty days of my signing up.

I sit down on the nearest bench and select the boxes for the maximum everything, sign, and drop off the paperwork on my way out. On the drive home, I do the math in my head—my paychecks will be reduced by more than a hundred dollars per week, even with the extra hours. I’ll have to subtract the difference from my tips at The Tavern to cover tuition for next semester. Totally doable. And put aside more for medical co-pays and start adding a higher percentage to my personal savings account. Also doable as long as those fabulous tips keep coming.

I don’t have to put anything toward Shannon’s rent for February and March, because Jason paid it. That makes me queasy, but I decide to be optimistic and force myself to stop imagining the look on her face when the feds show up to interrogate her. Her lease ends in April. I’ll pay her last month’s rent, then make sure she gets help moving into Mama’s house. Of course, Mama won’t be around by then and there’s Kari and JR to consider …

My head aches by the time I get home, so I decide to stop thinking about numbers and what-ifs and make myself dinner.

***

Thursday night is quiet. Amanda and Selly have the night off. Carmy has been studying for exams and looks a bit dull-eyed. The legal eagles are absent again, and Jim’s special of the night brings in some serious foodies who just want to take selfies with their plates before they eat, buy expensive wine, then leave. Thankfully, they tip well. I leave with four hundred and twenty-one dollars, longing for a cigarette and a soak in my tub. Shannon doesn’t answer the phone when I call.

***

Friday afternoon, I have a forty-five-minute appointment with Dr. Gray. I finish two of my “homework” lists in her waiting room. When she ushers me into her office, I notice the woman has an affinity for gator shoes—today she’s wearing sharp-toed boots and a long skirt. A smile sits on her mouth, those eyes tell me that her thoughts are elsewhere.

“Let’s see that homework.”

I hand over the lists and go to sit in the chair fixed between the windows. She remains standing beside the door, reading my lists through the glasses she holds up in front of her face instead of just putting them on. When she raises her head, she’s wearing a real smile all the up to those sharp cat-eyes of hers.

“Health insurance. Very nice. I can give you a list of websites with articles all about optimizing your 401(k) savings. In ten years, you could buy Juliet, Tennessee.”

I surprise us both by snort-laughing. Her smile turns to a grin. When she finishes reading through my lists, she goes to sit behind her desk and turns a serious face toward me.

“Not so long ago, it was illegal for a woman to have a bank account without her father’s or husband’s permission. Even the wealthiest of women often subsisted on small allowances and strict limitations. For them, and the less than wealthy, the slightest turn in fortune, divorce, a spouse’s death, or sickness, could be devastating and there were very little social resources. Decades later, the same can be true for women who otherwise feel they are independent and secure, that just enough is enough. And then those fortunes turn.”

I watch as Dr. Gray looks back down at my lists, then picks up a delicate little teacup and sips. She places the teacup back on the desk and returns her gaze to my face.

“Psychological, physical, even cognitive changes can take place in impoverished people. Women seem to be slower to succumb to the effects, despite the old adages about the weaker sex, but they eventually succumb. Several studies have shown that IQ points drop dramatically in otherwise intelligent adults after suffering only a season of poverty. Years of poverty, well, let’s just say that decision making, situational discernment skills, all become significantly diminished. Life can be whittled down to a day-to-day struggle just to get to the next day. Feeling safe, having the sense of freedom to make long-term plans are rights everyone is entitled to enjoy, but impoverished people can become so overwhelmed with their struggle to survive that long-term planning is not a recognizable option.”

She leans back her chair, steeples her long elegant fingers. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but when you left Juliet sixteen months ago, you didn’t think any further ahead than just getting to Memphis. You didn’t really have a long-term plan, did you?”

I shake my head. She nods thoughtfully. This woman has a knack for making me feel queasy.

“Tell me about coming to Memphis—you mentioned a friend from high school already lived here. You came to live with her, but now you don’t, correct?

I have to grit my teeth. She knows … she knows the story of Jen is bad. I grit my teeth, then I take a deep breath. “Jen was actually cousin to the friend I mentioned, Katie. I was saving up money, scraping up money, to leave, when I bumped into Jen’s mother one day. She bragged about how good Jen was doing, about her nice Midtown apartment. So, I asked for her number. Called up that night. I could tell by her voice that she was high, suspected she wasn’t doing as great as her mother believed. But I kept Jen on the phone, let her know I wanted an invitation. Jen said, yeah, come on. There are plenty of jobs around here, plenty of dudes, you’ll love my place.”

Dr. Gray’s cat eyes home in on me, refuse to let me look away. “Her place was disgusting. I had to scrub for two days before I could lie down and then …” Deep breath. Exhale. “At first it was mostly okay. Jen worked in some dive bar that kept her in cheap wine and pills and paid the rent. I paid the utilities and the phone bill, cooked for us. She got bored with me pretty quickly. Didn’t want to hang out much. She liked to bring guys home. Guys with drugs. I put a bolt lock on my bedroom door. Left a few times by the window when things got too rowdy on the other side of my door. I found a second job, then I started hanging out at the library. Just before Thanksgiving, I came in one night, found Jen in the bathtub unconscious. A needle stuck in her arm. And her boyfriend for the night was lying on my bed. They had taken my door off the hinges. Found money I’d hidden. Pretty obvious what they spent it on. I gathered up my stuff and left. Never went back.”

I’m breathless. Dr. Gray looks peaceful as afternoon rain.

“Did you ever want to get high with Jen?”

“No.”

 “You never went back to her apartment, you didn’t go back to Juliet. Did you think of going to a women’s shelter, try to call another friend or relative? Where did you go?”

“I slept in my car for two months.”

“Did that give you a sense of control?”

“Best sleep I’d had in years.” She sees the exaggeration, those eyes of hers peg me to the wall.

 “When was the last time you felt truly safe, Clare?”

I stare back at her. It takes a while to formulate my answer. “I’ve had moments. The day I rented my suite. Saturday night, when I counted out more than a thousand dollars in cash that I’d earned at The Tavern. Sundays at Family Dinner.”

“Family Dinner?”

“Yeah, the owner of The Tavern, Dennis, he invites all the employees to dinner every Sunday. We gather around this huge table, thirty of us, and we eat gourmet food, drink wine, dress really nice. That was a tradition for Easter and Thanksgiving when Grandma Harris was still alive. Cousins, aunts, uncles, old family friends, came from all over the state to sit at my Grandmother’s table. She cooked for days, we sat at that table and ate and laughed. That’s what Dennis gives us every Sunday. Celebration, kinship. He talks to all of us, welcomes all of us.”

“I’d like to hear more about The Tavern, Clare.”

***

I arrive at The Tavern twenty minutes early. Evidence of Friday dinner shift being in full swing is all around. Also, it’s evident that a few changes have taken place in my brief absence.

A new server has been hired, she’s dressed like me, sort of, and looks terrified as Amanda explains in her flintiest voice how to give each plate a quality check before leaving the kitchen. Amanda is dressed differently. Gone are her strappy wedges and short skirt. She’s wearing spiky heeled boots and a very expensive looking dress that might have come out of Margarite’s closet.

There’s also a new bartender, a woman in her late twenties or early thirties with jet black spiky hair. She’s wearing a tux and the same shade of lipstick as Amanda’s come-hither red.

She smiles at me as if I’m her long-lost best friend and says, “Oh, you must be Clare! I’m Dani, so great to meet you. You are gorgeous, they told me, but I didn’t believe them. I won’t fuckup the flow—I’ve worked for Dennis for years, at The Shelby down near the Quarter. Plus, Carmy filled me in on how the weekends usually go. She gave me a tour at noon. Y’all have quite the mix of customers, so it’ll be just like home, right?”

Her enthusiasm, and the way she drawls out her syllables is just plain entertaining. I smile and shake her hand. “Well, that was a lot, Dani. Very nice to meet you.”

“We’re gonna be A-team, just wait. You want a sweet tea? I bet Amanda was glad to see you, she’ll probably turn over poor Delia to you shortly because Selly wants her trained as a closer—that girl should have looked for an office job or something. She’s dropped three plates and I don’t know how many glasses. Just during practice runs, so … good luck with that. Oh! Selly wants to see you. There are some last-minute dinner reservations she needs to talk to you about.”

Selly is wearing an elegant red dress. She’s smiling at me as I walk toward the podium she’s standing behind. That newly added piece looks like a copper sculpture someone might have swiped from a museum display of ancient artifacts. It’s stunning, and Selly’s dress clashes with it terribly.

“Clare, you’re right on time. We have some special settings tonight—Ego and Dane will be arriving at eight, the private dining room. They’ll bring an entourage of about twenty, and only drink champagne, so … come along, I’ll show you what needs to be prepped.”

Wondering what the hell an Ego and Dane are, I catch up with Selly and listen while she talks nonstop for twenty minutes. It’s a good thing I got here early. When Sly and Devin arrive, they frown the whole time Selly explains I’m assigned the stage tables and the private dining room through ten o’clock. One of these days Sly and Devin are gonna corner me somewhere and that’ll be that.

***

At ten my tables are clear, so I take a break. Amanda stands across from the backdoor in her amazing envy green dress. She’s chain lighting a cigarette and has a murderous glint in her eyes. I light my first in three days, then take a long swig of an icy cold coke and point my cigarette at her dress.

“I love that.”

“Me too. I’ve already written down instructions to bury me in it.” She waves away a plume of smoke and squints at me from across the alley. “Speaking of burials. Want to take bets on how long before Delia keels over?”

“I’m curious as to why you didn’t give her that advice on how to break in new shoes.”

“Because fuck her.”

“Yikes.”

Amanda’s next exhale is noisy, almost a groan. She walks toward me, stops center of the alleyway, and looks at me with those scary eyes.

“Dennis let Selly hire that dumb, clumsy kid. Then gave me instructions to turn her into the next Clare. As if. Supposedly, she has a degree in restaurant management and has worked every summer the last four years serving banquets at the Peabody. That idiot can’t hold two plates at once. Who lies on a resume to get hired at a restaurant?”

“Maybe she’s just intimidated.”

“Then she’s got no business in this business.”

I nod at that and flick my cigarette into the big brass ashtray at the bottom of the steps.

“If you want, she can shadow me on the next few tables—all the celebs are gone for the night. And I’ll teach her the closing checklist. Keep her out of your hair for a while.”

“You can have my first born if you make her leave crying.”

“Keep your offspring. She’s gonna be the next Clare.” I wink at Amanda and go back to work.

An hour after that stupid remark, I’m considering taking Amanda up on her offer. Delia has no business here at all.

She’s a tiny little thing, limp-wristed, shaky, pale, and blonde. Even her blue eyes are pale. But when I really look at her eyes, I don’t see fear. I see something else. It’s as if a kid smeared their crayon while coloring in her eyes.

“Okay, let’s take a break. Dani, we’re taking a fifteen. Only two tables left in our section, dessert and coffee. I’ve already left the bills for them.”

“Alright, Clare.”

I lead Delia from the bar where we’ve been stocking, through the kitchen and out the backdoor after getting myself an ice water. Outside, she immediately starts shivering, so I reach inside the door to grab a coat the chefs use for trips inside the cooler.

“Put this on. Look at me.”

She raises her tiny little chin but doesn’t meet my eyes. “How’d you pass the drug test?”

“Wha-what?”

“Girl don’t what me. A drug test is required for every new hire. How did you pass?”

“I … I haven’t taken it yet. Selly said-“

I light a cigarette and step away from her. “How long have you been using?”

Her pale eyes slide away to stare at the brick wall behind me. “I think you’re just … you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, I know what I’m talking about. If you don’t intend to take the required drug test, go back in, get your stuff, and clock out. Right now.”

When her eyes land on me again, there’s anger behind that pale blue. I smile at her, smoke my cigarette. She turns, walks up the steps and disappears behind the door. A minute later, she walks out wearing a black hoodie and doesn’t bother to say bye as she exits the alley. A second later, Amanda appears.

Her mean eyes are sparkling. “If I kiss you on the mouth, will you take it the wrong way?”

“Save that kiss. You need to call Dennis and tell him Selly hired a junky.”

Shock registers on her face, then she grins. “Oh, it’ll be my pleasure.”

***

Shannon answers her phone as I’m pulling out of the garage. “Hey, kiddo. Did Memphis get any of that ice storm? Our power was out until just an hour ago.”

“Oh, everything okay? It missed us by a few miles, just colder than shit right now.”

“Just a couple of trees down here. Mama’s night nurse got stranded though. I’m sorry, honey, but she says she has to charge for that entire time.”

“Oh, well.” I grit my teeth at news, but I don’t want Shannon to know it bothers me. “Everything back to normal then? Y’all had anymore movie days with Mama?”

“No, she’s been sleeping a lot. And when she’s awake, she won’t eat anything. The Hospice nurse put in an IV, so she doesn’t just …I don’t see how a person could get any skinnier.” Shannon yawns, then pours herself a drink. I listen to the ice cubes clink and the bourbon bottle go glug glug. “Otherwise, she’s so cheerful. Kari came down, right before the storm, brought some picture albums Mama asked for. Oh! By the way, Emmett and Carla, they’re renting Kari and JR a house near them in Turning. They’re moving out March 30th.”

I exhale a sigh of relief at that news. Finally, something going right. One problem off the list. “I’m glad to hear it. They seem … okay?”

“Yeah. Emmett actually came by to thank us for letting them stay in Mama’s house for so long, said to pass along his appreciation to you. He’s got a job now, manager at the grocery store, and all their kids are in school, so Carla is going back to work at the textile mill. He seemed happy about making plans to have his Mama and Daddy close by again. That old landlord of theirs never bothered to fix the roof on the little red house. Emmett said the thing collapsed last November. So, terrible as the last two years have been, I’m glad they could stay in Mama’s house all that time. Are you leaving that bar?”

“Halfway home. “

“It’s a hotel, Clare.”

“Yeah, we’ve been through that, Shannon. I’ve told you about that tub.”

She laughs quietly. “You sound so good. So happy. Everything must be working out well there.”

***

Saturday night, I don’t exactly feel awesome as I enter the alley where Carmy and Amanda are already disgruntled and smoking.

Carmy turns away from whatever Amanda is complaining about and seems to examine me head to toe. “You look a bit lackluster, Clare. Everything alright?” She hands over a lit cigarette after that critique, so I take it.

“Just tired after the day job that started five hours after the night job.”

Amanda sighs. “How many jobs do you have?”

“Only three, plus nine credit hours at Southwest.”

Carmy’s voice goes all breathy, “I don’t even … I work less than thirty hours a week here plus school and I’m smacked. I’m gonna get you some coffee. Did you bring some eyeliner? You’ll want to get that … I’ll be right back. Coffee. And lipstick.”

I frown at Amanda, “Do I look that fuckin’ bad?”

Amanda shrugs and chain lights another cigarette. “Dennis is in the office. Ego & Dane are booked again, their agent, entourage, and who knows. We’ll have a private dining room full of music celebs and wannabees in about an hour. You have been specially requested.”

“Okay?”

“That’s kind of a big deal, Clare. Two famous local rappers returned to The Tavern and requested you to be their server. They also want their own bartender, so Carmy will be in there with you. Dennis is about to pee his pants, because this booking alone will probably clear us for the week.” Amanda exhales a plume of smoke, smirks at me, and says, “Fix your makeup, I guess. Be prepared for all that ass smooching Dennis is about to give ya.”

“Promise me something?”

“Maybe.”

“When Sly and Devin murder me, avenge my death?”

Amanda guffaws.

***

Ego & Dane are Memphis born and raised on the southside of town. They grew up way down below the poverty line but scratched together enough local notoriety and cash to drive off to Hollywood ready to be the most famous Memphis black kids in history. That was ten years ago. They failed miserably and came back home to get stoned on homegrown and say fuck off to the rap industry.

While working on that plan B, one of Dane’s many nephews, De’Andre, showed up at a family barbecue with a brand-new camera—the kid has a love of social media and a knack for techy stuff, photography, and music editing. Within a few days of the barbecue, without his uncle’s knowledge, De’Andre uploaded a raw home video of Ego & Dane chilled out, surrounded by friends and family, line dancing, eating, playing on a slip and slide, all to the beat of the first song on their demo that every record label in Los Angeles had turned down flat.

That video didn’t just go viral. It went epidemic. In a matter of hours. And so, the second season of Ego & Dane’s music career began long after they’d given up the childhood dream. What they made in that second season was nothing like they had originally hoped for. It was better. They’re not world famous—those Hollywood music dudes are still holding out—but in the South, they are kings. Tall, skinny, always smiling, funny as hell, champagne drinking kings.

“Night Snow White,” Dane bends down about four feet to kiss my cheek, then does the same to Carmy, “Night Pretty Doc, good luck on those next exams.”

Ego blows kisses from the doorway, “See y’all when we get back from ATL. Be good!” And out they go, trailed by an entourage of forty people.

Carmy, smiling, cheeks flushed, looks around the dining room and says, “This is going to take hours to straighten out. But my God that was fun! The way you got them to talking, Clare! That was better than an episode of Behind the Music.”

“They’ve got an amazing story. So impressive. Alright! Whatya say? Fifteen-minute break, then come back to this?”

“Yeah, let’s carry out a lot of stuff on the way, try to look industrious.”

Selly is grinning like a well-fed cat when we enter the front of house. She follows us past the bar and into the kitchen where Dennis is standing surrounded by the legal eagles, most of the kitchen staff, Amanda, and Jake. Just as we walk in, arms laden with dirty dishes, Dennis pops the cork on a bottle of champagne, and everyone shouts. What exactly they shout I can’t make out over the sound of Carmy screaming as she drops a stack of plates. Dennis laughs like he’s stoned. What the hell?

Still laughing as champagne bubbles all down his arm, while I’m standing there open mouthed and Carmy is bending down to clean up the broken plates, Dennis says, “I’m so sorry to startle you, Carmen. Leave those plates, stand up. Have a drink, we’re celebrating!”

Selly steps up to begin cleaning up the mess, while Carmy gawks at the champagne glass Dennis puts in her hand, and Patrick steps up to take the plates out of mine. He smiles crookedly, then turns away.

“What the hell, Dennis?” I shriek.

He just laughs and pours me a glass of champagne. “I said we’re celebrating. Ego & Dane’s publicist just tweeted that The Tavern is their home away from home, it’s a five-star gourmet restaurant with all the funk and shine that a Memphis bar should have, and the best staff of any place they’ve ever had a meal and a drink. They just recommended our place to everyone on the planet.” He raises his glass, and shouts, “To Clare! Snow White Pirate Princess, and favorite of the most famous rap duo in the South! “

Everyone shouts again. Carmy and I just stare at each other. Then, like Dennis, we laugh like we’re stoned. Two glasses later, everyone on duty gets back to work except for me and Carmy. We go to have that fifteen-minute smoke break and clear our heads of champagne fizz. DJ and Patrick follow us out the door.

DJ kicks off the conversation with, “I’m trademarking your nickname, by the way. Now that Dane is calling you that, it’s priceless and I should get all the credit.”

“How did he even know?”

DJ shrugs, “Maybe I told him when we were playing pool earlier. Maybe not. I’m going to start you a twitter page.”

Carmy thinks that’s hilarious. We light up cigarettes and guzzle water. Patrick stands over by the opposite wall, smoking and looking up at the stars.

“Well,” I look up at DJ, “did you two make up or what?”

DJ shrugs again, “Dude’s my bro.”

Carmen snorts. “Since when do you say bro?”

“I’ve always said bro. Bro.”

“If everything’s cool with y’all,” I point my cigarette at Patrick still staring up at the stars, “why is he over there doing that?”

“He’s drunk as hell,” DJ snickers, then chokes on his cigarette smoke and stumbles down the steps.

“What have y’all been doing?” Carmy asks, obviously shocked by their odd behavior.

Patrick speaks, still looking up at the night sky, “Dennis saw that tweet then got a call from the publiss… publicist more than an hour ago. That was the third bottle of champagne he opened when y’all walked in.”

DJ laughs, then hiccups. Carmy looks at me in disbelief. “Clare, these ex-frat boys can put away a case of beer a night. I’ve never seen them sloshed. Holy shit.”

I grin down at Patrick, just as he turns to look at me. “What a night!”

Patrick grins in a very lopsided way and says, “Don’t know the half of it. Ego, Dane? They’re exclusive now, the only place they’ll eat in town is The Tavern. They’re label execs are coming here, the label execs’ new bands, the friends, and friends of friends, all coming here. You turned last night’s last-minute reservation into a year’s worth of bookings, Clare.”

“C’mon,” I flick my cigarette butt into the ashtray and say, “all I did was show up to work.”

Patrick keeps grinning, rocks back on his heels. “Sometimes that’s all you gotta do. That’s what my dad used to say. ‘Show up where you’re s’posed to be. Stay away from where you’re not s’posed to be. Good things happen.’ Straight up fuckin’ wisdom, yeah?”

A smile warms me up all the way to my soul. That’s the best advice I’ve heard in my entire life. “Yeah, straight up fuckin’ wisdom.”

***

Dennis is in the office when Carmy and I finish cleaning up the dining room. When we put back all of the cleaning supplies, he calls us in from the storage room. Still holding a glass of champagne, he smiles at us and hands us each an envelope.

“That’s a thank you for tonight. I won’t be at Family Dinner tomorrow, I have to go to Nashville, so Jim will be at the head of the table.” He pretend kisses each of our left cheeks then leaves us standing there holding the envelopes. Each one holds fifteen crisp one-hundred-dollar bills.

Carmy instantly starts crying happy tears. I just stand there and try to breathe.

When the closing is all done, I find out that Ego & Dane’s agent tipped me $1500 on his credit card. I just made more than three thousand dollars in one night. I have to pace in the bathroom for ten minutes and practice breathing so I don’t just scream like a crazy person on the loose from the crazy hospital. What a fuckin’ night.

Patrick follows me through the alley as I walk to the parking garage. He walks a bit sideways and wears the oddest facial expression.

“You are not okay to drive.” I tell him, not at all ashamed for snickering.

He sighs, stuffs his hands in his coat pockets and says, “Not really. DJ and I were doing shots before the champagne came out. I haven’t been this drunk since senior year at LSU.”

“Why start back now?”

He turns those beautiful eyes on me. They are sad and shadowy. “My dad died, two years ago today.”

“Oh, Patrick.” I do the dumbest thing then. I reach for him, grab ahold of that cashmere coat, his left sleeve. Now I can name his facial expression: wounded.

He tries to smile, but the boyish, sly look disappears quickly. He stops walking, turns to me, brings his right hand out of his pocket and touches my cheek.

“No matter what anyone says, Clare, if you’re close to your parents, or not, if you have warning or not, losing them is hard. Losing them stays hard for a long time.”

We stand like that for a while. Me clutching his sleeve, him touching my cheek. Looking into each other’s wounded eyes. The icy January air swirling around, making the lamplight look smoky all around us.

“I wasn’t close to my dad,” I say. “Everyone else worshipped him. Nothing was the same after he got sick. They weren’t the same, my family, the town I grew up in. He died when I was nineteen. I didn’t cry for him until a year later, and even then, I think I was crying for Mama. She was just …broken. He cheated on her, had kids with another woman. They all came to the funeral, and she just sat there, bragging about what beautiful children that man could make. A year after his funeral, she got sick. That’s when I cried. She’d just gotten that terrible diagnosis and all she wanted was to go to his graveside and talk to him.”

I pull away from Patrick, look up at those smoky lights and sigh loudly. “Sorry, I guess, I said all that to say I understand. I stayed fuckedup on one thing or another for two years after Daddy died. So, I understand. And I’m talking too much. Sorry.”

He smiles crookedly. That smile, his wounded eyes, the way he takes my hand in his, all of it, melts something down inside of me, something that’s been hard as steel for a long time. That’s a scary realization, so I walk away from him.

 “I’ll drive you home if you can remember the way.“ He takes hold of my hand again and we walk to my car.

Watching him sit down in the passenger seat of Old Hondo is quite something. He and his fancy coat are way too big, and that sweet mournful expression disappears behind the mask of a surprised snob.

“This interior looks brand new. What is this a ’98 model?”

“’99. Owned for fifteen years by a little old lady who only drove it to the grocery store and church.”

Patrick pets the leather arm rest, then the dash, and looks at me with pure wonder on his face. “So, you’ve owned it for five? Clare, I’ve got to say, people who take such good care of their car’s interior impress the daylights out of me. You have my undying respect.”

“As I should, sir. Now, tell me where to take you.”

He gives me directions to a gated community overlooking the river. A super posh neighborhood full of scaled down plantation houses with immaculate tiny front lawns and grand wrap-around porches. His doesn’t have a front driveway, and the house is something out of a ghost story with a wrought iron gate creaking in the cold wind, vines dangling down from a second story balcony and ragged weeds climbing up to the front porch. A shutter is hanging lose, a wicker chair is leaning sideways.

My face must reflect the horror I feel since his turns all shameful. “Yeah, it’s bad. It’s been sitting here unoccupied for six years. I inherited it two weeks ago … sort of. My Uncle Frank bought it, got jilted at the altar, then just walked away from it. Aunt Deana called me up, said it’s about time that I take some responsibility. Move in here and stop the HOA from suing Frank’s estate. I don’t know the first thing about taking care of a house. A yard.”

“Good lord. Watch a fuckin’ You Tube video or something. Get out, I’ve got to go. This is heartbreaking.”

He laughs at me. Genuinely belly laughs at my reaction. Which horrifies me more. I try to push his drunk ass out of my car, but he just leans in, laughing, and kisses me on the cheek.

“Night, Clare. Thanks for everything.” And then he’s gone. Stumbling up on that poor old porch. Opening the door to an unlit room. I stare at the closed front door, as lights turn on inside.

“Fuckin’ heartbreaking,” I say, shaking my head as I drive away.

***

On the third day of February, I wake at nine in the morning to the sound of the everything electric switching off inside the hotel. As I lie there in bed, trying to figure out what just happened, a groan winds through the building, then emergency lights flick on, a whisper of heat.

When I stumble out of bed to look out the window, it’s snowing sideways, and the parking lot is a solid sheet of ice. I look regretfully at my awesome Family Dinner outfit laid out on the end of my bed and hobble to the kitchen, check to see if the coffee pot works, it doesn’t. So, I go snuggle beneath my fluffy duvet.

The ice storm wasn’t in the forecast. Now the local meteorologists are predicting that Memphis will remain frozen for forty-eight hours. Thankfully, the power returns fully to the hotel by noon, just as my breath is starting to make little foggy puffs. Amanda, Dennis, Carmy, and Patrick all text to say Family Dinner is canceled and ask if I’m alright. I respond to them all and ask the same, somewhere between my second doze and the power returning. When I’m drinking my second cup of coffee and shamelessly smoking a cigarette in bed, I call Shannon.

“Oh, shit, Clare. I just saw the news! That entire city is a block of ice. Do you have power? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, got the heat rolling in here, a hot cup of coffee, and snuggled in my big old bed. How are y’all?”

“No more storms, but it snowed last night. Like a winter wonderland out there. The kids have been out twice, there’s puddles all through the house.”

“And Mama?”

Shannon’s voice gets very quiet, “She’s slept fifteen of the last seventeen hours. Clare … this is happening too fast. I don’t know if I can-“

“You can. We can. You know what she told me, when I saw her that last day in the nursing home, Shannon?”

Shannon sniffles, “Yeah. That she was alright with dying. That she had a happy marriage and beautiful children, a good life.”

“Yeah. Not many people can be so cheerful, so pleased with their life at the end. I’m grateful for that.”

Shannon coughs, sniffles again, “I didn’t realize until a few years ago but Mama, she’s avoided reality most of her life.”

“I know. Good thing, right?”

***

The meteorologists got something right—Memphis didn’t thaw out for forty-eight hours. Lab deliveries, class, and my next appointment with Dr. Gray remain canceled by the time the temperature warms to a balmy thirty-six degrees. But my WiFi works just fine and I’m able to confirm that the direct deposit paycheck from the lab delivery job hit right on time. I had completely forgotten that The Tavern also paid monthly by direct deposit. Server wages in Tennessee are nothing to brag about, but two weeks’ worth all in one net lump sum is enough to keep gas in Old Hondo for a month. So, I stay in pajamas, in my suite, working on my budget as well as the lists for Dr. Gray.

Dr. Gray’s assignments all involve building a set of checklists to guide me through making myself financially secure. Typically, 90% of that monthly check for lab deliveries goes to Mama’s bills, and the Mallory paycheck is split between tuition, Shannon’s bills, and my expenses. Until a few weeks ago, I was barely feeding myself on the hours and tips from the Midtown diner. If I didn’t have that bonus and a stack of crazy money from The Tavern right now, paying the night nurse would be a real struggle. Thanks to the bonus and tips earned over two weeks, and Dr. Gray’s soul rattling lesson on how I’ve been doing things all wrong, I now have a plan for approaching everything.

According to a website the cat-eyed doctor passed along, a person should save up three months expenses for an emergency fund.  That number should include rent, transportation, food, and any other basic monthly costs times three. My number is $3930. I already have $1200 in savings, scraped together over the past sixteen months. So, $2730 from my bonus and tips creates an emergency account. I make out a bank deposit slip, put the money in an envelope, and check that off my list.  I already have two weeks rent for the suite, car insurance, and my cell phone bill put aside thanks to that insane tip Saturday night, and last week’s Mallory check I haven’t banked yet.

That leaves $900 in cash. I like to keep $100 in emergency cash in my nightstand drawer, so I do that. The stack is down to $800. Feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the goodness, I step away from my desk, pour another cup of coffee and light a smoke. I can’t allow myself to get so happy about all this. Inhale, exhale. I’ve really got to quit smoking. But not today.

The Mallory check and the lab check can all go to the night nurse. I’ll have about $75 left in my checking account once that payment has cleared, until I deposit the next Mallory check. So, a month’s groceries … I take another $150 out of the cash. Next, according to the my ‘stability’ list, I need to make certain my car is all taken care of, ensure its reliability. As Patrick pointed out the other night while wearing that snobby frown, my car needs better tires. I also haven’t paid for a full service on it since last summer. New but inexpensive tires plus a full service will cost a minimum of $500. I put $600 into an envelope labeled HONDO and look at the tiny stack of cash remaining.

That remaining $200 and the next Mallory check will create my new personal savings account. Next week, I’ll work on building an account for medical copays and summer tuition. I pen checkmarks on my list and decide to go take a shower. I’ve got some banking to do tomorrow, then a search for a good tire and service place.

***

Thursday night, I walk into The Tavern to find more changes. Another server is training. She and Dani, the bartender, are both dressed like me. And Amanda doesn’t look as if she’ll commit a murder tonight. In fact, she looks downright serene as she says hello. “Clare, this is Charlotte. She’ll be your shadow tonight, for dinner service.”

After an hour working with Charlotte, two things are obvious: She’s got experience handling more than two plates at once, and she’s got a thing for Dani. Another hour, and I realize she and Dani knew each other before either of them came to work here, and the three of us are running the busiest Thursday night I’ve ever seen without a breaking a sweat. Alright. A-team it is then. I can’t wait until Friday night.

***

Friday night is just as loud, chaotic, as always. And twice as many dinner reservations are on the books—besides the music related guests and foodies, there are journalists, a couple of real estate bigwigs, and tourists from Chicago and New York.

Dr. Gray’s piercing questions and piercing eyes are on my mind. She praised my efforts with the checklists for half an hour today during our session, then started with the questions—”Do you feel as if you’re limiting opportunities to build new relationships? Do you see coworkers outside of work? Who can you confide in, other than your sister? How long since you’ve been on a date? I’m concerned that you’re isolating yourself, Clare. Would you like to talk about the reasons behind that?”

Charlotte, Dani, the assassin twins and Carmy have everything under control by the time the first band steps on stage. Since everything is going so smoothly, I decide to take a full thirty-minute break around ten o’clock.

“You’re deep in thought,” Patrick’s whispered words make me jump. When I jump, I elbow him in the side and his next word is “Ooof!”

“What the hell, Patrick?”

“Sorry, I called your name. You were lost, out here staring at the wall, never heard me.”

“So, you sneak up to whisper in my ear? Good lord.”

He says sorry again, but his grin makes that out to be a lie.  He points at the unlit cigarette in my hand. “Are you gonna smoke that, or can I have it?”

I hand it to him and take a step away. He’s different tonight. Casually dressed in jeans and a pull over hoody emblazoned with the UofM instead of one of those pretty suit shirts and ties.  His hair is mussed, and there are smile lines showing around his eyes. He smells delicious, as always. Looks at me as if he can’t decide if I’d be delicious or poisonous, as always.

“What are you grinning at?” I ask him. He tries to frown.

“Just that look on your face. Everything changes when you’re worried. So, what’s on your mind?”

I never had any intention of telling anyone about Dr. Gray, but suddenly I’m telling him. I tell him about getting stabilized in midflight, not potentially becoming a surrogate. Carmy steps out in the middle of my babbling, she doesn’t interrupt. When I’m done, I pull a pack of smokes out of my apron pocket and light up.

“So, I need to find an apartment. The perfect apartment, with no lousy roommates, affordable rent, in a decent neighborhood. All of my jobs are within five miles of downtown center now, so in that same vicinity would be great. But studios down here cost at least a grand a month plus utilities, plus parking, plus deposits.” By the time I’m done, my voice is downright whiney.

Patrick has a weird light in his eyes, and Carmy is smirking when she says, “What you need, hon, is a boyfriend.”

I stare at her, dumbfounded. “I just said no lousy roommates.”

For some reason she winks at me and nods at Patrick, then flicks away her barely smoked cigarette and goes back inside. I stare after her for a minute, then shake my head.

“The last thing I need is a boyfriend. Stop looking at me like that Patrick. Are you drunk again?”

He shoves his hands in the pockets of his jeans and rocks back on his heels. “Nope. What if Carmy isn’t wrong, though?”

“Then that would make me wrong and I’m not. I’m trying to stabilize. Not crash faster. Weren’t you listening? I have a horrible life, a ridiculous family, can’t afford my own apartment in my desired neighborhood, and I’m in therapy.”

His grin turns down a little bit. “Want some advice?”

“About boyfriends, no thanks.”

He pretend coughs and makes his face all serious. “Take a chance on a roommate who could someday maybe be a boyfriend. Do a background check, get a co-habitation contract. Split the cost of a really nice place, say, with a courtyard and a two-car garage. Double master suites. A big old porch, nice river view.”

When it dawns on me that he’s talking about his house, that beautiful, ghost story of a house, I flick my cigarette butt at his shoes and turn for the door. “You’re an asshole, Patrick Dunham.”

“So, you’ll think about it?” He calls after me. I can hear the laughter in his big dumb voice, and I hate him.

At eleven-thirty, Carmy calls me to the bar while Dani is on break. DJ is the only patron sitting on a stool on the other side of the bar, and his facial expression tells me someone just kicked his dog.

“What’s up?”

Carmy says, “It’s time we talked about you and my favorite pool player and how perfect you would be together. Tell her, Deej.”

“I won’t do it Carmy. If you never give me another free beer, that’s fine, I’ll survive, but I’m not-“

“What are y’all talking about?”

Carmy ignores me and dead-eyes DJ. “No more Family Dinner.”

His mouth drops open.

“I’m serious. Tell her.”

“What the hell-“

Carmy holds up a hand to stop me, then points at DJ. His shoulders slump. He doesn’t quite meet my eyes when he starts speaking in a monotone, “Dunham respects you, he really … likes you. He’s the best roommate anyone could ever have. He can cook—sort of. Frozen pizzas and he makes great club sandwiches. Doesn’t whor- um … he doesn’t date a lot? Never leaves his clothes in the floor, always flushes the toilet.”

“Hush,” I say with irritation plain in my voice.

“See, Carmy! Clare is a lone wolf, a pure soul, she doesn’t want-“

“Get out, DJ, now,” Carmy is looking at me when she makes that scathing command to her cousin. “Clare, hon. I’m the youngest person here, but there are three things that I’m very good at. One, anything science. Two, reading peoples’ vibes. And three, making the best whiskey sour this side of the Mississippi. Which, when you think about it, reading people and mixing the perfect cocktail are all science related. Right? So, Patrick is in a bad spot right now. I can’t say everything without being a gossiping bitch, but I will say he just had a huge burden put on him. This is a guy who’s gone from boarding school dorms to college dorms, to grad school dorms, and he’s now stuck with some mini mansion that he doesn’t know what to do with.”

I turn to walk away from Carmy, to get a head start on my closing checklist. “I know about the house.”

“I wasn’t done talking.”

She follows me back to dry storage and stands with her arms crossed as I start pulling down napkins and containers of salt and pepper. “You grew up in a completely different way than Patrick did, learned commonsense stuff like budgets and lawn care, you need a nice, safe, affordable place to stay. He’s nuts about you, but he’ll never behave like a horny college dude, he’d never-“

“Stop!” I stand toe to toe with Carmy, holding all the supplies in my arms when I shout, when I get her to shut up.

 “Let me tell you something else I grew up learning—we never truly know what people are going to do until they do it. The thing you should realize that’s specific to me and Patrick is we’ve never had an entire serious conversation, I don’t know him, he doesn’t know me, and neither of us need you butting in on a topic we haven’t even discussed.”

“Oh, you’re kind of thick aren’t you?”

“Excuse me?”

Carmy gets a mean glint in her eyes. “I’m not butting in. Patrick asked me talk to you. To ask you to consider … maybe it is silly, or irresponsible when you get right down to the nuts and bolts of it, but y’all have something. And what better place to cultivate that something than being roommates and helping each other out?”

“This is almost the dumbest conversation I’ve ever had. Will you get out of my way so I can go back to work?”

“Fine,” Carmy mumbles.

***

When I walk up to my car, Patrick is leaning against the driver’s side door. I stand a few feet away, staring in utter disbelief. The gall of this guy.

“What has gotten into you?”

“You were right when you told Carmy that we don’t know each other. If we did, you’d know I tend to think outside the box. I don’t have much affinity for going the traditional route, to any end. But I’m not careless. Not usually… clumsy with talking to someone that I like. A couple of strange things have happened to me recently. More than a couple. But one of those things is I met you, and I’ve been clumsy around you, Clare. You look at me with those gold-flecked deep brown eyes, and I just turn into a bumbling idiot. Can’t say I like that much.”

“Your self-esteem hasn’t suffered much of a blow. Seem to be doing fine.” That crooked smile of his appears, proving that’s a tell for when he’s feeling shy. And clumsy.

We look at each other for a minute. It’s irritating to admit, but I like everything he just said. I want to hear what the other strange things are that have happened to him recently.

“Patrick, do you have a coffee maker at your ghost story of a house?”

He blushes a little bit. “I do.”

“If you make a cup of coffee for me, we can talk for a while.”

“Deal. I’ll go get my car. Follow me there?”

I nod. He turns away to walk two cars down. To a Porsche 911. “Good lord.”

***

The coffee is okay, I guess. Some brand I’ve never heard of, something exotic that isn’t found in the nearest Kroger. His kitchen is all white and chrome and what I suspect might be quartz countertops. Miles of white sparkly quartz countertops. The entryway, the double parlors, all sit empty. There’s a thin layer of dust on the floors, the walnut banister, the mantles, fully visible in the golden light that pours down from matching chandeliers with a flick of a switch.

“I told you the other night about my dad. He left a trust fund for each of us, my mother, my brother, and me. A house just outside Collierville, a big house, lots of land, horses. The Porsche was his.”

If the look on my face shows anything but nausea, I’d be surprised. Definitely nausea, because he moves away from me, down to the other end of the quartz island. His tone changes a bit, goes from slow and sad, to stilted and matter of fact.

“Until a couple of weeks ago, I thought the car would have to be sold off to pay for my tuition. The trust funds are gone. Fallon has hired investigators, forensic accountants to figure out how, but I’m fairly certain my mother knows exactly where the money went. Anyway, my Uncle Frank died last month. His sister, my father’s sister, she’s executor of Frank’s estate, and another person who believes my mother has taken off with all of Dad’s money. Frank and I were never close, Aunt Deana and I have always been. Well, as close as could be with me sent off to one boarding school or another.”

He stops stirring his coffee and looks up at me warily. “Sorry, this is a long … story. Do you want to see the rest of the house?”

I shake my head, sip at my coffee, and wait for him to continue. He looks reluctant to do so, but after a minute, he gets started again.

“Aunt Deana is going to pay my tuition, and she’s going to give me what she calls a stipend. As long as I live in this house, tend to it, get the HOA off her back, make this place into a home suited to the neighborhood. If I do all that, plus keep up my stellar record in law school, when I graduate, the house becomes mine. I can keep the car. Fallon will get our old house in Collierville because he can afford it. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that he was behind Aunt Deana’s sudden concern that I should be handling real life and not just going to school. Fallon likes to remind me whenever he gets the chance about how he had a wife, two kids, and a mortgage when he was a second year. Now he’s state legislature bound and I’m just an irresponsible kid who’s only possessions are a laptop and exercise equipment. He doesn’t visit a lot. I have two laptops.” Patrick’s attempt at humor falls flat.

His eyes level on me, and his voice changes again. “Yeah, I play pool four nights a week at The Tavern, goof off with the guys, and come to Family Dinner, but every other hour that you don’t see me, Clare, I’m going to lectures, doing research, proofing briefs, volunteering with Legal Aid. This house sits empty fifteen hours a day, six days a week. In the summer I’ll be interning for a firm in Nashville—ten weeks. With the stipend Aunt Deana’s giving me, I’m expected to pay the HOA, property taxes, and utilities. I don’t have much experience living on a budget, but after a few hours spent with a calculator, it looks like I’ll have just enough money left to keep my suits drycleaned and eat frozen pizzas for the rest of the year. I can’t make this place into what she wants, I can’t fulfill her demands to be something other than a full-time student. My brother told me to take the responsibility, or else. I still don’t know what he can threaten me with other than being a worse asshole the few times a year we see each other. But that’s beside the point.”

“So, you want a roommate who can keep house, and what? Do the yard work, cook the meals, disappear when the snobby family members come to visit?”

He looks at me with a solemn expression. “I need a not lousy roommate who’s willing to pass on some life lessons without treating me like an irresponsible brat. Someone who’s proven their trustworthiness by keeping a twenty-year-old car looking brand new on the inside. Someone who knows the difference between a weed and a flower. Someone who, if ever faced with a surprise visit from my asshole brother, wouldn’t think twice about putting the great Fallon Hayden Dunham in his place.” Patrick sighs heavily, runs a hand through his hair roughly and says, “Forget that last part. I’d never expect you to … never mind.”

“So, you need the perfect roommate, but you don’t want a girlfriend?”

“I’d love to have a girlfriend. But the girl I want has her hands full with real life right now. She doesn’t have time for me.”

It’s about forty degrees inside this house, but I’m burning up. Melting right down in my boots. And then he smiles. Good lord. I try to straighten my posture and look him in the eye. “Can I have a glass of ice water?”

His smile turns to a smirk. “Get it yourself, roommate.”

“Ah, hold on there, legal eagle. I think you mentioned something about background checks and, what was it? A co-habitation contract? Then there’s the rent negotiations. I need to see the numbers. And if, if I decide to move in here and split the bills, that’s all I’ll be doing, splitting the responsibility. I’m not going to be your maid, your cook, your bad big brother wrangler or … whatever.”

He holds up his hands as if in surrender. “I clean up after myself. But anything you can teach me about cooking or lawn care, or … whatever, I’m willing to be a good student.”

He waits a heartbeat, puts his hands down then grins at me. “Glasses are in the cabinet left of the fridge, potential roommate. You don’t like the coffee?”

I step around the island to go get a glass. “What can I say, Patrick? I’m a Folgers kind of girl. Life skill lesson#1: If you’re on a budget, don’t buy coffee that can’t be found in a regular grocery store. That means you can’t afford it. So, when can you have the numbers and that contract ready for me to look at?”

***

Shannon’s voice is rigid with shock. “You’re what?”

“It’ll be a week or so before everything is finalized, but you heard me. I’m moving in with a guy I met at work. My monthly rent will be two hundred less than what I’m paying for the suite, and Shannon, this is the most beautiful place you’ve ever laid eyes on. I can’t wait for y’all to visit.”

“You’re moving in with a guy.”

“A guy will be my roommate, yes.”

“And you think that’s safe?”

“Safer than spending ten minutes alone with most of the men in Juliet? Fuck yeah.”

“God, Clare. You make everyone here sound so awful.”

“Most of ‘em are awful, Shannon. Maybe take Mama’s rose-colored glasses off once in a while. Then you’d be willing to pack up and leave, too.”

“Oh, hush,” Shannon says in a scathing tone. She exhales smoke loudly. Her tone doesn’t improve much when she starts talking again. “Mama was up for a while today. Asked me to call the funeral director and that preacher at the Baptist church where she used to go.”

I light a cigarette and let that news settle on me. “She feels it, doesn’t she?”

“Says it’s like someone is standing just behind her, just out of sight. I can’t get over how cheerful she is. How-“

“Peaceful?”

“Yeah. The policy she has will cover the funeral, burial. Nothing else. Mr. Shaw explained it all to us this afternoon. Pastor Chelsea, he said he’d like to donate the flowers, and of course the lady deacons will handle the dinner. Mama just loves that old man and his old country church. She told me to send her yellow dress to the dry cleaners in Talbot, told me to call Jason and Mikey. And you.”

“Why? Why now?”

“Because she wants to sell the land, every acre except what the house stands on. She wants us to promise to pay off the mortgage on the house, split what’s left after you’re paid back every penny. I made her an appointment with a real estate agent. For tomorrow.”

“It’s her land, she can do whatever she wants with it.”

“That’s what I said. But she wants to make sure all of us are in agreement. No arguing after she’s gone.”

“I think we’re more likely to get stuck with a billboard sized for sale signs, like on old Mr. Parson’s land the past three years now.  No one is buying land down there, timber maybe, but not land. What did the boys say when you called?”

“Haven’t called them yet, wanted to talk to you first. Okay, Maggie, I hear you darlin’. Jeesh, this girl. All my other kids slept through the night by six months. She’ll be eleven months old soon and hasn’t yet.”

“She’s a night owl, our Maggie Mae. Call the boys, Shannon. They’re not going to disagree with Mama’s wishes. Not even Jason. But if the land sells, I’m not going to take the money back that I paid. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get you a stream of income, and I think what I said earlier just might be the answer.”

“What?”

“There is no shortage of log trucks on the highways surrounding Juliet, last trip I almost got clobbered by one less than a mile from your house. Someone is buying timber. Someone is milling it. We need to find out who.”

“But you just said let Mama do what she wants.”

“And I meant it. If she wants to meet with a realtor about putting the land up for sale, if she wants an agreement from all of us not to argue over her decision, then by George, she’s got it. I’ve got no intention of disrupting her peace. Just want you to know I’ll be looking into alternatives for when that realtor can’t get more than pennies on the dollar for that land. If she’s thinking about selling and intends for us to split the proceeds, then she must already have a will in place. Let her go on with her plans.”

“Alright.” I hear her begin to sniffle. “Alright then. I’m gonna go take care of this baby girl. I’ll call the boys tomorrow. Night, Clare.”

“Night.”

***

Dennis seats me and Patrick together again. At this Family Dinner, there’s already a vase and centerpiece flowers awaiting the bouquet I bring. More hydrangea poofs, white roses, delicate, violet-blue vines. Dani is in attendance, but not Charlotte. And if I ever believed that wonders and good drugs don’t exist, I do now—Sly sits to my left and talks my ear off through most of dinner. Apparently, we’re friends now.

***

Dr. Gray and her alligator pumps meet me at the door late Monday evening. By way of greeting, I hand her the cohabitation contract that Patrick had one of his friends write up. I’ve read it, but I want to see what she thinks. I want her to be present when I mark ‘stable home’ off my list.

She sits at her desk, holds those reading glasses between her face and the pages of the contract. Her expression is dreamy, and she’s smiling when she puts down the papers down.

“Patrick is the law student pool player you were speaking of, the kind young man with the nice eyes?”

“Yeah, that’s Patrick.”

“I think it’s interesting that you two are entering into a roommate agreement, rather than dating. Don’t you want to date him, Clare?”

“Neither of us really have the time for dating.”

“But you’re attracted to him?”

“He’s attractive.”

Her smile disappears, but she still has that dreamy expression. “Clare, you can tell truths here.”

I take a deep breath and look down at my shoes, the plain old black leather sneakers I wear with the lab delivery uniform and my maid uniform.

“The truth is, I can’t trust myself to know why I’m attracted to him or if it really means anything. Am I attracted because he’s good looking, obviously from money and well-educated. Or is it because he’s just a nice guy. Nice to everyone, even his obnoxious school mates. Or because he quoted his father once, the most amazing wise quote I’ve heard a twenty-five-year-old guy repeat when he’s sad and had too much to drink. Or because he keeps his hands to himself and doesn’t try to tell me how great a fuck I must be. Every kind of attractive I never met until I met him. Am I so desperate that …?” I almost groan with the frustration of not being able to put everything that should be said into words.

Dr. Gray waits for me to keep going. But I just don’t have words.

“None of those are unhealthy reasons to be attracted to someone, Clare. Kind, thoughtful, respectful of his father’s wisdom, possessing self-control, respectful of your space, your intellect. Those are all good qualities. Qualities that should be the norm, not the exception.”

“The norm, not the exception.” I repeat, then, “Yeah, he’ll be an excellent roommate.”

Dr. Gray sighs delicately.

“What do you think might happen if, once you’re cohabitating, when you realize that you are genuinely attracted to him? That you want to have sex with him, that you want more than just being a roommate?”

I frown at her. “That would be stupid. Ruin everything.”

“Would it?”

I nod and look down at my shoes again. “Sex and … affection lead to confessions. Patrick doesn’t know very much about me. Very much about my past. He wouldn’t look at me the same with those eyes of his if I get to telling him all of it.”

“Okay. Why is it that you think Patrick is attracted to you?”

She waits for a heartbeat while I blink at her dumbly.

“Every guy you’ve ever met thinks you’re pretty, sexy, but Patrick doesn’t say all that. He doesn’t grope you, hasn’t tried to woo you. And yet …?

“Maybe I’m different from everyone he’s ever met, too.”

“Maybe.” Her smile returns.

“I’m someone who works my ass off, not to impress, but to make sure I get food and a place to stay. I’m someone who is impressed by a lovely house, well-educated people. I’m someone who blushes when given a genuine compliment or when people say dumb stuff like how brave I was to run away from home all by myself. He doesn’t know that I used to do drugs. He doesn’t know that I gave a baby up for adoption when I was nineteen. A baby I got pregnant with because I was stoned and depressed after my best friend killed herself. He doesn’t know that I didn’t love my father, I hated him because he ignored me, because he was too busy with another woman’s kids by then to be bothered. Patrcik doesn’t know that I was raped the night my stoned, drug dealing brother left me in the back of his car outside a dive bar. He doesn’t want to hear all that shit. He’ll never understand that I would rather hear on the news that Juliet, Tennessee burnt to the ground with everyone in it than to ever think about going back there. Because back there lies the ruins of my entire goddamn life and proof that people are willing to just keep on making more ruin!”

The gleam in Dr. Gray’s eyes alerts me to something. Something is wrong. I’m standing, fists clenched. My face is wet. My chest heaving. My throat raw.

She waits again. Waits for me to keep talking, raging, processing. But I just fall back into my chair and scrub my face with my hands.

A moment later, she places a bottled water on the table beside me, then props against the side of her desk.

“Being attracted to someone, even falling in love with someone, is not a weakness, not a commitment, Clare. It’s simply a release. An admission of freedom to feel what you feel in the moment you feel it. Allowing yourself to forgive yourself, to appreciate the journey you’ve struggled through, those things make you free. Allowing yourself to love is a freedom unlike any other.”

“I need a lot of freedom, but right now, I don’t need the freedom of being in love—if that’s real. If what you said is the truth. I loved Freddy Neal. I loved Katie. Maybe I did something wrong because none of that ended well. Why can’t I just be a great friend, a great roommate who tends to the yard and pays my rent on time? Why won’t you tell me I did well by getting a contract, a stable, affordable, address with a two-year lease? That’s good, right?”

Dr. Gray leans against her desk, without saying anything right away. With hands folded in front of her tailored slate gray pantsuit with her mouth closed and cat-eyes watching my face. I open the bottled water and guzzle half of it while she watches me.

“I think you’re very good at taking things in stages, Clare. As far as self-imposed defense mechanisms go, that’s not a bad one. And I apologize for trying to convince you to move ahead too quickly. But please understand, you must keep moving. Allow yourself to keep progressing.”

She walks around to her chair, glides into a sitting position and looks at the contract again. When she looks up, the dreaminess, the smile, those are all gone.

“Tell me about giving up your child for adoption. Does your sister know?”

***

“Shannon.”

“Are you getting a cold, Clare? Your voice is all …”

“Yeah, maybe, listen. Is everything okay there? Can you stay on the phone for a minute?”

“What’s wrong, kiddo? Where are you?”

“I’m in my suite. Can you talk?”

“Yeah, the nurse is in with Mama. She’s had eventful days, lots of visitors since Saturday. What’s going on, honey? You sound terrible.”

“I had a baby.”

“Uh, no. No you didn’t. Are you talking about a weird dream or something?”

I light a cigarette, pour a shot of bourbon into a hot cup of tea. Smoke, sip, smoke. “It wasn’t a dream. Freddy Neal and I … The night after Katie’s funeral … I went out with him on his boat. I knew I was pregnant within a few days—you always said that. That you could tell early, every time.”

Shannon’s voice goes cold and straight as a stick. “You weren’t yet nineteen when Katie died.”

“Yeah. I didn’t show until… I didn’t even tell Freddy until I was seven months along, we hadn’t seen each other much … I wore big sweatshirts, stayed in my room a lot. The twins were two then, they had the measles. You were like a zombie, and Mama was trying to get Daddy to go to the doctor because he was throwing up all the time. I called Freddy, and he cried. Stupid boy. He cried and said he’d marry me, said we could live on his houseboat—that’s all Katie ever wanted so I just … couldn’t.  Freddy said he would do anything for me, so I made him promise to help me find someone who could raise the baby. We made a trip to Knoxville the same day Mama finally bribed Daddy into going to the doctor over in Talbot. That’s the day they found out he was … he had cancer.”

“Oh my God. Oh my God. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because you would’ve …When Daddy got hospitalized the first time, I told everyone I had the flu. Mama said not to come visit him, just wait till he got home. Freddy drove me to Knoxville again, that same week. I gave the baby to a couple … the Wilsons. Adam and Sheila. They cried the whole time she was being born. They named her Olivia. She was the littlest thing.”

Shannon is sobbing. “You had a baby. Oh my God.”

“I was afraid to tell you, you would have convinced me to keep her, and I just couldn’t, Shannon. The most hateful thing was that … the thing that just wouldn’t stay out of my mind was this idea that I had betrayed Katie. She would have hated me. She’d loved Freddy her entire life, wanted babies with him. Wanted to live on that stupid houseboat. If she’d been alive, I would have given Olivia to her. She would have hated me. She was all gone, though.”

“Nothing, baby! I’m just watching a sad movie, go back to bed. Sweet dreams!”

I don’t know which kid walked in on Shannon crying, but she gathers herself up quickly. I hear her pour a drink, then walk outside. I try to pull myself together. I fail.

Shannon sniffles. I hear her lighter click, then a little sad laugh. “Freddy Neal joined the Navy.”

“I know.”

“He got married last November. To a girl from Hawaii.”

“I know.”

“Holy shit, Clare. Honey, I’m so sorry you had to go through that all alone.”

“I know.”

***

I cut class Tuesday afternoon and meet Patrick at the house. The porch has been relieved of that poor old, crooked wicker chair. The shutter repaired. The floors have been cleaned, the banister and the mantles dusted. There’s a bouquet of winter white roses and hydrangea on each mantle, a pub table in the breakfast nook, six tall chairs with black leather cushions, and a container of Folgers by the coffee pot.

He’s standing at that gorgeous countertop that sparkles in the light. He’s slicing sandwiches. I set down the signed contract on the edge of the counter, along with a check for two months’ rent.

Patrick glances at the papers, then at me and smirks. “You’ve got to be the only Millennial I’ve ever met who knows how to fill out a check.”

“Do you know how to cash one or does your butler usually do that?”

In a perfect mimic of Thurston Howell, the third, he says, “I’m a Dunham, Princess, I know where all the banks are located.”

That makes me smile. “I see you managed to get some furniture. That’s the ugliest table I’ve ever seen.”

“Yeah, thanks. There’s other furniture, too. You never let me give you a tour the other night.”

“I can take a tour now.”

“No, now you have to eat half of this sandwich and have a beer with me. You will be wowed by my culinary skills, then I’ll show you everything, even the laundry room—that’s where the washer-dryer is.” Patrick slides me half a sandwich on a paper plate, uncaps to beers and takes a swig of one.

“I’m not sure I know how to use a washer-dryer that’s actually inside a house. Where do I put the quarters?” He spits out half his beer laughing.

***

The laundry room is big, with plenty of room to walk past the almost industrial sized, front-loading chrome washer and dryer. The walls are made up of pale gray ceramic tile laid out like shiplap—or as we say in the country, clapboard. There is lots of shelving, only one container of laundry soap, and three black wicker hampers lined up beneath the shelving. The laundry is tucked in beside a pantry behind the kitchen. The pantry shelving is bare and the room itself is twice the size of the closet back at my extended stay suite.

Beyond the laundry room is a narrow mud room, with a bench and coat hooks. That leads out to another wrap around porch that overlooks the saddest little courtyard on the planet. There’s nothing sadder than dead weeds. The courtyard has scant evidence of a past lawn, a pretty patterned stone walkway and slender fountain in the center. The space is long and narrow, closed in on two sides by a six-foot tall brick wall and ends at the back entrance of a two-car garage. Some skinny fruit trees and crepe myrtles grow along each wall. In the summer, those will offer up some shade and pleasant aromas, lots of color. We linger out there for a little while, then Patrick waves me back inside, and up the backstairs to the second floor.

Upstairs is made up of one grand master suite and another bedroom that’s only a fraction smaller. In the master suite he’s got a king-sized platform bed absent of a bedspread and pillows, a sleek black dresser, and a bunch of LSU sports memorabilia stacked against the wall. On the opposite wall there are double French doors that open out onto a balcony that overlooks the ragged little front yard and a stunning view of six other mini mansions and their stunning landscaping.

The bedroom across the hall is scattered with workout equipment, a desk scattered with papers and a couple of laptops. Along the same wall as two bright windows, three bookcases tower to the ceiling. They are filled with rich brown leather volumes with gold embossment on each spine. Other books, not so important looking as those, are stacked on the floor in front of the desk.

Upstairs everything smells like him. Good leather, a hint of rich tobacco, expensive bourbon, and a dash of vanilla. I wonder what brand of soap or cologne smells like that. I’d like to do my laundry in it.

Instead of saying that out loud, I ask, “Can I use the elliptical?”

“Anytime you want. The community has a pool and weight room just two blocks down. I’ll make sure you get a keycard. Let’s go downstairs, your room is on the opposite side of the hallway as the dining room and kitchen, right below my office.”

My room. I want to see my room. We follow the stairs down into that broad entry way, turn opposite the grand front door and pass the double parlors, then the formal empty dining room on the left. On the right, Patrick opens a door that leads into a master suite just is bright, just as roomy as his. There’s a queen-sized brass bed frame on one side of the room, a vintage dressing table and mirror on the opposite side. The bed is the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. I walk over to pet the brass footboard with its winding scroll work. When I look up at Patrick, he’s smiling.

“Fit for a princess?”

“Wh- was this already here?”

“No. I called Aunt Deana, told her neither of us had any furniture. I came here with just the stuff that’s in the office, and my LSU junk. She told me to go to Uncle Frank’s house in Germantown, get what I needed. This was in a guest room, that pub table in his game room. I left his mattresses, took the sheets and bedspreads that were on the beds in his house. They’re all in the wash now. Two couches, lamps, a dining room set, stools for the island, and stuff out of his library will arrive tomorrow, some boxes of nice China and more kitchen ware, too. I now know a decent place to buy a new mattress if you need a recommendation and …Clare?”

I’ve turned away from him, so he can’t see the tears in my eyes. He got me furniture fit for a princess and I just can’t breathe. So, I walk into the master bath and stare at the tub there. A family of three could sleep comfortably inside. That family of three could set up housekeeping in the closet. My belongings will fill about one square foot.

“Good lord.”

When I’ve got myself under control, I notice that he’s left me alone. I don’t know how I’ll stand being around such a sweet guy on a regular basis. Even so, I walk through the mini mansion to find him. He’s out on the back porch with another beer, smoking a cigarette. I try to keep my voice light as he hands me a smoke.

“So, all we really need is porch furniture and lawn equipment?”

“Nah, turns out all that is in a storage closet in the garage. Found it last night. Had to get Uncle Frank’s truck to bring the beds over. I’ll get someone to come pick it up, the truck that is, so when you’re all moved in, you can park the Honda in there.”

“He’s not gonna know what to think … being run ragged for five years, all of a sudden got four new matching tires and a little house to live in.”

“Who? He?”

“Old Hondo.”

“Clare, you named your car? You call it he?”

I light my cigarette and give Patrick an are you stupid or something glare. “Of course. He’s very important to me.”

“You don’t … name other cars, do you?”

“I can do whatever I want.”

“Wow. Please don’t name my car.”

“Too late.”

“I don’t want to know, do I?”

 “Fernando. He and Hondo will be very happy together. Are you going to get me a beer or what?”

Patrick laughs all the way to the kitchen.

***

We’re on our third beer when my phone rings. “Hey Shannon, can I call you back later? Patrick and I-“

“She’s gone, Clare.”

Everything inside me stills. I can feel my smile freeze on my face. My voice stick in my throat.

Shannon whispers, “She’s gone. I had Kari come get the kids. The funeral home will … Mr. Shaw will be here soon.”

Patrick is smiling at me. I watch as his smile fades. “Clare? Are you okay? Oh … no.”

Shannon starts crying. My knees buckle. Patrick holds on to my arm, guides me down to sit on the porch step.

I have to clear my throat several times. “Shannon?”

“When can you be here? I don’t … when can you be here, sis? Please come home. Come home.”

“Have you called the boys?”

“N-not,” is all she manages before breaking down.

“I’m calling Mikey. You’re not going to stay in that house all by yourself. I’ll be there as fast as I can, okay? I’m gonna hang up now, do you hear me, Shannon?”

“Alright.”

My frozen fingers manage to press the button for Mikey’s number. I can’t stand the expression on Patrick’s face, so I force myself up. I walk away from him as Mikey’s phone rings.

“Hey, Clare. I’m in the middle of-“

“Mama’s gone, Mikey. I’ll be there by morning. Will you call Jason?”

“Goddamn.”

“Yeah. Will you call Jason?”

“Yeah.”

“I need you to go to Shannon’s. Get there as soon as you can, okay?”

Mikey clears his throat. “Alright. I’ll leave now.”

“Thank you.”

I end the call, and for some reason, throw my phone across the courtyard. It thuds against the fountain, lands face down on the cold ground.

I don’t know how long I stand there, staring at my phone, ten feet away. But at some point, Patrick comes out with my coat and a cup of coffee.

I put on my coat, take the warm cup into my hands.

“I can drive you, Clare. I’ll stay out of everyone’s way. You shouldn’t make the trip by yourself.”

I look at my phone so far away and say to him, “I’ll be fine.”

2 thoughts on “Dearest Wounded & Healing. I’m Going To Tell You A Story: Chapter Two

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