Saturday morning dawned with plenty of sunshine and a beautiful blue sky. I was glad there wasn’t a single chance of rain to ruin the Neighborhood Watch meeting in my backyard. It took me no time to set up: I stapled a leftover flier to the pine tree in the yard with a shoebox underneath it. I filled the shoebox with my presidential business cards and added a few of my artistic cards for good measure. I carried out Katie Nicole’s pink karaoke machine in order to use the microphone to amplify my voice. Then I went back inside and waited for everyone to show up.
Officer Jackson arrived fifteen minutes early to review our game plan. His muscles strained against his blue uniform, and he had blond hair and piercing blue eyes. I was completely intimidated by his brusque manner, bull neck, and red face, and was immensely relieved when the first of my neighbors began to show up.
Only twenty people or so attended, including my family, friends, and Officer Jackson. Ms. Gertie and Mrs. Matilda arrived together with Bethany a step behind. Amanda came next, struggling with Gabby’s baby stroller across the bumpy terrain. I was surprised when Heather straggled in just as the meeting was starting. I was surprised, that is, until I saw her hungrily eying up the beefy policeman by my side.
I needn’t have worried about no one hearing me without the karaoke machine because Officer Jackson did all the talking. I offered the small, pastel microphone to him and he took one look at it, snorted, and started speaking in a booming voice. He introduced himself as our neighborhood police liaison then he introduced me. I said, “Hi,” and that was the extent of my public speaking.
Officer Jackson immediately launched into a rehearsed-sounding spiel about safety, our community, and being aware of our surroundings. He listed several ways we could help our neighbors, therefore helping our neighborhood and ourselves. He then announced there had been a few robberies in Misty Meadows recently and we should all be more careful about locking our doors and windows. He thanked everyone and left before I even realized he was done.
Everyone milled around for a while, talking about the robberies and venturing guesses as to who had been robbed and who was responsible. Mrs. Matilda was unusually silent as she studied Amanda’s reaction to the conversation. Amanda’s reaction was exactly no reaction at all, much like Gabby’s blank stare. Unlike Gabby, Amanda wasn’t drooling.
People only began to leave when they realized there was nowhere to sit but on the damp grass and there would be no refreshments served. I was glad I hadn’t bought snacks and drinks; I hadn’t wanted the meeting to turn into an impromptu block party. I was pleased to see that everyone took at least one of my business cards before they left, and the box was empty by the time my last neighbor departed.
I spent the rest of the afternoon at the dining room table working on the “Puppy” storyboard. I was satisfied with how it was coming along and by the time I had to get ready for my date, I realized I was almost finished with it.
Tiffani showed up promptly at six o’clock. I called a greeting to her from my bedroom and asked her to join me for a moment. She entered a second later, and as she smiled at me from the doorway I was once again amazed by how much she resembled her beautiful mother, yet less brittle somehow. Heather and Tiffani looked similar, but seemed different in some inexplicable way - - - like the difference between chewy caramel and crunchy toffee. I wondered, not for the first time and probably not for the last, exactly how much work Heather’s plastic surgeon ex-husband did to her before they got divorced.
I was seated at my vanity in the master bathroom, wearing a laser-cut eyelet sundress the color of mocha, and I gestured for her to come in. As she crossed my bedroom to sit on my bed, I noticed a pair of red G-strings sprouting out from the waistband of her ultra low-rise jeans. From the bathroom doorway, I held a gold hoop up to one ear and a dangly tiger’s eye to the other.
“The hoop,” she answered without hesitating. The girl sure knew her fashion: her keen sense of style had advised me on at least one accessory every time she babysat for me.
“How’s it been going?” I asked as I slipped the hoops onto my earlobes.
“K,” she mumbled with downcast eyes and a shrug, sounding like any typical American teen. I knew I had my work cut out for me; it would be like pulling teeth to extract any love secrets from her.
Her blue eyes, rimmed with harsh black liner, refused to meet mine in the mirror. They darted here and there like a pair of hummingbirds: from the roll top secretary where I paid bills to my kids’ framed hand prints on the walls, anywhere but at me. She twisted a strand of her long blond hair around a plum-tipped finger as she glanced around.
I studied Tiffani’s reflection in my mirror as I leaned closer to apply bronzer to my cheeks. She picked a cuticle as she sat on the edge of my bed, beyond my right shoulder, and I flicked a smile at her. I attempted to gain her trust, and a confession, by asking if she was seeing anyone.
“Only when Mom lets me,” she answered with a dramatic eye roll.
“Who is he?” I asked nonchalantly. I added mascara to my already thick lashes, which brought out the golden flecks in my eyes.
“Chavez,” Tiffani replied breathlessly, and I knew she was one smitten kitten. A smile lit up her face as she spoke his name, and her eyes took on a vacant glaze.
“What’s he like?’ I asked innocently.
That was all it took; the floodgates were open. Tiffani poured out everything but the size of his penis, and I’m sure she gladly would have shared that if I’d only prompted her to do so. She summarized by mourning her “stupid mother.”
“She hates him.”
“She doesn’t even know him,” Tiffani hedged, and I eyed her reflection suspiciously until she explained. “The only time she ever met him was in like a rather . . . unflattering circumstance.”
“She caught us in bed together.”
“Oh, God,” I said.
“That’s not the worst part, though,” Tiffani added, eyes downcast again as she fiddled with her studded belt. What could possibly be worse? I wondered.
“We were in her bed.”
I spun around to face her. “Tiffani!” Even to my own ears I sounded like a scolding mother.
“I know! I know!” she wailed as she hung her head. “It’s just she has a king sized bed and mine’s only a twin. I promised her it wouldn’t ever happen again, but she still hates him!”
Bill poked his head in the open doorway. “Hon? It’s 6:20.”
“Coming in a sec,” I responded absently, never taking my eyes off Tiffani.
“I really won’t ever have sex in Mom’s bed again,” Tiffani said.
Bill quickly withdrew his head.
“Chavez and I love each other, though. And he, like, wants to take me to the prom. So, maybe you could talk to my mom for me?”
“I don’t know,” I said slowly. “It seems to me like you guys kind of already blew it with your mom.”
“I know. That’s why I need you to talk to her. Please,” Tiffani begged.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I relented against my better judgment.
“Thanks, Cami Jo,” she said as she squeezed my hand.
“Mommy, you look beautiful,” Dylan said as we emerged from the bedroom, coming down the stairs.
“Hey,” Bill said as he playfully punched Dylan’s shoulder, “that was my line.”
We arrived at the Outside Inn early, so we waited at the bar and ordered drinks. As I scanned the crowded restaurant, I spotted Brandon and Bethany at a table with a magnificent lakeside view. Bethany spied me at the same instant and we raised our glasses at one another. They waved for us to join them and I dragged Bill over to their table.
Bethany looked stunning in the crimson sundress I’d helped her choose earlier, and Brandon was downright gorgeous in a blue shirt that matched his eyes perfectly. Bethany and I hugged as the men stiffly shook hands, and we all exclaimed over the chance encounter. A formally dressed waiter hovered nearby, looking down his thin nose at us; his face impassive as we asked for two more chairs and to cancel the Smith reservations.
“Will that be all?” the haughty waiter asked Brandon sarcastically as he passed out our menus. “Or will anyone else be joining your intimate table for two?”
He walked away without waiting for an answer, and we made small talk about work as we perused the menus. I already knew Bethany was the lay-out designer for a local grocery store, but I found out that Brandon was the financial adviser for a rival store. Brandon’s job description portrayed him as a “go-fer” because he seemed to do absolutely everything: from stocking shelves to the payroll. He claimed to love it and seemed genuinely happy with his hectic career choice.
We toasted to “Happiness” with our glasses of wine, and Brandon and Bethany exchanged secretive smiles before taking a sip. They made an extraordinarily attractive couple, and were so sweet and attentive to one another that it made me smile.
Bill and Brandon hit it off immediately and were soon swapping opinions about an obscure article they’d both read in a magazine I’d never heard of. Bethany and I excused ourselves to use the ladies’ room. We stood at the sinks to whisper and giggle about the fortunate coincidence of our meeting.
We returned to the table a few minutes later, and as I started on my salad I noticed Brandon glancing at me as if I had something stuck in my teeth. I grew paranoid after his third furtive look, and when I questioned him he silently pointed at my left foot with his fork.
Everyone at the table looked down to see a long ribbon of toilet paper trailing from the heel of my favorite peep-toe shoes. I’ve never come across an etiquette book that covers the endless humiliations that seem to plague me. I scurried back to the bathroom to remove it, moving as quickly and as carefully as I could without tearing my unwelcome appendage.
I returned to the table just as our waiter silently passed out our dishes. He then placed a huge steaming platter in the center of the table, which was so large it practically covered the entire tabletop. The waiter set up two folding trays on either side of the table; one with a large bowl for trash and the other with a bowl of warm water and lemon slices to wash with. We tied on our bibs and dug into the house special: “The Lobster Pot.”
A Lobster Pot dinner easily fed four adults, and was the messiest (and most expensive) dish on the menu. Four lobsters, eight clusters of crab legs, twelve ears of sweet corn, several pounds of Gulf shrimp, and dozens of crawfish were all boiled together with the perfect mixture of Old Bay, lemon, and other secret ingredients. The pot of cooked seafood was drained, poured onto a giant platter, and served to the customer with plenty of melted butter and linen napkins.
As we ate, we discussed the weather, sports, and our mutual neighbors. We split a Mississippi Mud Pie for dessert and declined the offer of coffee from our uptight waiter. We split the check, left a generous tip despite the waiter’s rude attitude and walked to the parking lot as a group.
Brandon opened the car door for Bethany and she gave me a quick hug. She took the opportunity to whisper in my ear, “I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.”
Bill and I drove around aimlessly for a while, not quite ready to go home and be parents again. We talked of inconsequential things, and I told him about Tiffani’s predicament. I didn’t feel like I was breaking anyone’s confidence because Tiffani wasn’t my client; her mother was. Besides, Bill had overheard enough of my conversations with Tiffani to warrant some kind of explanation. When I got to the part of Heather finding Tiffani and Chavez in her bed, Bill interrupted me.
“I would have killed him,” he said.
“I would have killed both of them.”
We had parked behind the local softball field; off the beaten path but not quite out in the middle of nowhere. The stars shone brightly through the windshield and music played softly on the radio. I glanced at Bill reclining in the drivers’ seat of our family car, and he looked about eighteen years old again. He was so incredibly handsome in the moonlight that he practically took my breath away. I momentarily felt like a teenager and I laughed out loud. Bill stifled my laughter with a kiss and we began to make out like the horny teenagers we once were.
Bethany stopped by the next morning to update me on the remainder of her date. I was sorting my laundry and she followed me to my bedroom so I could finish. I was sure that accepting a visitor in my bedroom so I could do laundry would have appalled Ms. Gertie. I was glad my relationship with Bethany was different from Ms. Gertie’s friendship with Mrs. Matilda.
Bethany was exuberant, and her face positively glowed as she told me again how good-looking Brandon was. I wholeheartedly agreed with her opinion as I searched for the mate to a pairless sock. As she gushed about him, I realized I’d never seen her look more beautiful. Her onyx eyes were shining as brightly as the smile she couldn’t keep off her face.
Brandon seemed to possess every quality Bethany looked for in a man: good looks, integrity, and kindness. She asked me what I thought, and I admitted he was “very nice, and easy on the eyes,” and I’d been impressed by his attentiveness over dinner. Bethany and I agreed to double-date again, “next time on purpose,” before she left.
After she left, I decided to walk to Ms. Getie’s. I’d been pondering over her problem with Mrs. Matilda, and had come up with no plausible solution, only more unanswered questions. I approached her house, and was once again reminded of a large gingerbread cottage, complete with curlicue trim, flowering window boxes, and windowpanes frosted with colorful glass.
Ms. Gertie was delighted to see me and she ushered me in like a long-lost relative. Curiously, her house even smelled like gingerbread, and when she offered me a plate of gingersnaps I knew why. Ms. Gertie was dressed in a tan pantsuit with lots of chunky red jewelry and she looked like a plump gingerbread woman. I sat on the same settee as last time and vaguely wondered if the dust motes floating in a shaft of sunlight were the same as my last visit.
I started off by repeating my important suggestion from our last chat: she should talk to Mrs. Matilda directly about the problem. She bounced in her seat as she spoke, and her tight polyester pants strained across her round backside. Her bosom bounced as well and I hoped she didn’t accidentally slap herself in the chin.
She good-naturedly shot my idea down again, but at least offered an explanation this time. She’d once been baking for a neighborhood pie-eating contest when Mrs. Matilda dropped by for a visit. She’d offered Mrs. Matilda a seat at the kitchen table and regretfully informed her she was too busy to stop and chat but she more than welcomed the company while she baked. Mrs. Matilda felt snubbed by the rude invitation, had promptly declined, and left in a snit. She hadn’t spoken to Ms. Gertie for the next three years. The feud finally ended upon the birth of Mrs. Matilda’s hot-shot lawyer grandson.
I understood the social graces of being a hostess, but I came from a much more lax generation. My parents found it to be a confounding generation that dealt with issues head-on, and when that didn’t work they sought out the advice of therapists. Apparently, openness wasn’t a priority in their complex relationship, I surmised; which would explain why they couldn’t solve a simple problem amongst themselves.
Ms. Gertie was aghast when I pointed out my next obvious solution: she should move. Her thin eyebrows shot halfway up her forehead and she fumbled in her cleavage for her glasses. She lifted them to her eyes and peered at me with her shiny blue eyes full of consternation. She wouldn’t even consider my suggestion because it was “so utterly out of the question!” She also pointed out she couldn’t possibly move because she’d never be able to find all the cash she’d been stockpiling around her house over the years.
A sudden thought struck me. “If you were roommates then you wouldn’t have to treat her like a guest and you could continue working around her.”
Ms. Gertie clucked her tongue as I held my breath. “Well, I suppose that could work,” she said and I breathed a sigh of relief. “But I couldn’t possibly be the one to move.” She glanced around the precise room and gave her head a little shake. “Besides, I couldn’t live in her house.” She leaned forward and lowered her voice. “Personally, it gives me the willies with all the smells and the weird sounds and flickering lights.” She sat back and gave a slight shudder.
I silently agreed with her, and my thoughts meandered to who in their right mind would buy Mrs. Matilda’s house if it did go up for sale. I wondered how to get that scenario to happen; how to get Mrs. Matilda to move in with Ms. Gertie and put her monstrosity of a house up for sale. As I ruminated, Ms. Gertie began idly chatting about the neighborhood gossip. I completely tuned her out until I heard the words “for sale” come out of her mouth as if she’d read my mind.
“Excuse me?” I interrupted.
She lifted her glasses to her eyes to squint at me. “I was saying that the Jones’ put their house up for sale because they were afraid the neighborhood was changing.” She gave a little snort before dropping her glasses, which were caught by the chain and dangled back and forth across her round bosom.
My list of questions for Ms. Gertie had been answered and I wanted to get home to my family so I cut the visit short. Besides, I had a feeling Ms. Gertie was warming to the notion of giving me another lesson about some of her “more ignorant peers.” I’d heard the tirade twice before over the years and I had no desire to sit through a repeat performance.
I hastily bid Ms. Gertie farewell and left her cozy home confident that I’d found a solution to both of their problems. If Mrs. Matilda were living with Ms. Gertie, she would no longer be plagued by a poltergeist. Talk about killing two birds with one stone, I thought smugly.
I reached the sidewalk and met Amanda walking Gabby in her stroller, and she waited for me to catch up to her. I was glad to see she was wearing shoes and clothes and her tawny eyes were clear and bright. I soon found out why: her husband had gotten up with Gabby during the night and Amanda had enjoyed her first night’s sleep in two months. She looked wonderful, and I quickly told her so.
“Yes, it’s amazing what a good night’s sleep can do,” Amanda said. “I even felt like taking the time to fix my hair this morning.”
The short curls around her face were coiled into perfect little ringlets and the warm highlights looked fresh. I noticed for the first time that the honey-colored streaks in her hair were almost the exact same shade as her eyes.
Gabby let out a shriek and Amanda leaned around to look at her. “What’s wrong Abby?”
I frowned. “I thought her name was Gabby.”
Amanda’s step faltered and a guilty look crossed her face. “Oh, it is,” she recovered quickly. “Actually it’s Abigail, but I wanted her to go by Abby and Tonya wanted her to be called Gail. So, we compromised and came up with Gabby.”
By then we were at the end of Amanda’s driveway and she wiggled her fingers at me and hastened to her front door. I thought Mrs. Matilda’s assessment was partially correct: something was off about the Johnson family. I just didn’t know what it was. Whatever it was, though, I knew I liked Amanda.
As I crossed the street to my own front door, I wondered about Gabby’s name. I had allowed Katie Nicole to suggest names for her brother when I was pregnant. But in the end, it had been mine and Bill’s decision alone to name him Dylan. I could understand including an older sibling in the “baby naming game” because I had done it myself. However, Katie Nicole had been three at the time, not a senior in high school like Tonya. It seemed like every time I ran into Amanda I was left with a disquieting feeling.
Bill and I decided to take the kids to the park after I got home. They flew kites in the cerulean sky as I reclined on a plaid blanket I kept in the trunk of my car for such occasions. I searched the cloudless sky and mulled over the hopeless situation between Ms. Gertie and Mrs. Matilda. I couldn’t picture Mrs. Matilda willingly leaving her home, nor could I imagine Ms. Gertie approaching her friend and asking her to become her roommate. Neither of the stubborn women seemed capable of taking the first step by changing their behavior in the slightest.
I listened to the musical laughter surrounding me, and wondered if the two frustrating older women had ever played together like the children around me. If they had, I certainly couldn’t picture it, so I thrust the entire problem momentarily out of my mind.
My kids began some sort of game of Statue Tag that ended on the playground. Once there, they went their separate ways: Dylan with a group of rowdy boys and Katie Nicole with two charming girls.
Bill and I enjoyed a peaceful moment to ourselves, like two lovers sneaking an interlude at a family picnic. We stretched out together on the blanket, with my head on Bill’s solid chest, and breathing in his scent through his threadbare AC/DC t-shirt. I clearly remembered going to that concert with him when I was sixteen - - - it had been our first official date. As I listened to the thud of his heart, I felt my tense body begin to relax. I leaned up to give him a kiss, but Katie Nicole’s loud taunt of “Dis-gust-ing!” quickly put an end to our tender moment.
We picked up some Chinese take-out for dinner on our way home. We ate at the dining room table, and the kids talked nonstop about summer vacation. It seemed our day spent outdoors in the warm sunshine had triggered a case of “spring fever” in them. By the time we were breaking open our fortune cookies, they had enough plans for the summer to last an entire year.
“Mine says, ‘A smile can brighten someone’s day,’” Dylan read from his fortune slip. He smiled around the table at us, and I had to agree with it. His eyes stopped at Bill. “What does your say, Dad?”
“Nothing can compare to the love of your family.”
Katie Nicole snorted. “Mine says, ‘Be compassionate and you’ll be compensated.’”
All eyes turned to me. I unfolded the tiny slip of paper and frowned as I read it. “All will be revealed by the full moon’s light.”
I thought about it as I lay awake in bed that night. Bill snored beside me, and I wondered what exactly would be revealed to me by the light of the full moon. I had already checked the calendar and we weren’t having a full moon that night, yet I was still uneasy.
Dawn was approaching when I heard an indeterminate sound from outside. I slowly rolled out of bed, so as to not disturb Bill, and crept to the window. I peeked through the curtains and was surprised to see two police cruisers, red lights lazily spinning, parked in front of Bert and Ruth’s house.
It never occurred to me to wake up Bill. I slid my feet into my slippers and grabbed my ratty bathrobe from the hook on the back of the door. I pulled the robe on as I ran downstairs, missing the bottom step and falling against the front door. I yanked it open, slamming it against my shoulder again, and raced next door.
The police were leaving just as I arrived. Officer Jackson paused long enough to tip his cap at me before getting into one of the police cars. I passed another policeman on the walk leading to the front door. He nodded at me with cold green eyes and a sharp, suspicious stare. A policewoman was on the front porch, holding a notebook with one hand and patting Ruth on the shoulder with the other. Bert had his arm wrapped around Ruth’s waist, but the comfort being offered wasn’t enough and Ruth wept into a sodden tissue.
As soon as she saw me she pulled away from the other two and embraced me. I caught the policewoman’s look of relief and she hastily beat a retreat to the second police car. Bert put his arm around Ruth’s shoulders, and together we led her back inside to the living room. I sat beside her on the sofa because she wouldn’t loosen her grip on me. I glanced at Bert, who was standing helplessly in the doorway, wringing his hands.
“Maybe she would like some tea,” I suggested, hoping if he had a task to perform he would feel helpful. Also, I was hoping it would give me a chance to calm Ruth down some.
He scurried to the kitchen and I heard him slamming cabinet doors and muttering to himself. Like most husbands, he didn’t seem to know where anything was kept.
I held Ruth at arm’s length so she had to look at me. “What happened?”
“We were robbed.” She gave a shaky laugh. Then she dabbed her eyes with the tissue and blew her nose with a mighty honk. “I woke up and someone was rooting through my jewelry box. So, I yelled at Bert and the man took off running. Oh, Cami Jo, it was so awful!”
She collapsed against me and began to sob again. I held her hands and patted her between the shoulder blades, and made soothing noises of comfort. By the time Bert handed her a cup of tea a few minutes later she had managed to get herself under control. Well, almost.
“Ruth waking up must have startled him because he only made off with her ivory cameo,” Bert said as he sat down on the other side of Ruth. He took her hand that wasn’t holding the used tissue and kissed her palm. She smiled at him briefly before they both looked back at me, Bert leaning slightly in his seat to see around his wife.
“The cameo was a silhouette of her great-great grandmother and was carved out of African elephant ivory and surrounded by twenty carats of diamonds,” Bert said.
“Oh, my God,” I said, wondering how much it was worth, but not daring to ask such an impolite question.
“Of course we have it insured,” Bert added.
“But that’s not the point,” Ruth said. “The cameo wasn’t the only thing either. The man dropped my jewelry box in his haste and it broke.” She began to cry again, but much less hysterically than before.
Bert leaned around her to peer at me again. “The jewelry box was my wedding present to her.”
“Oh no,” I said.
Bert nodded as Ruth sniffed and wiped her eyes. The tissue was no longer working and she was left with wet smears under her eyes. She was finally composed enough to take a sip of tea, then she smiled appreciatively at Bert.
“Maybe it could be fixed,” I suggested.
Bert and Ruth instantly began shaking their heads.
“It was inlaid with a mother-of-pearl mosaic,” Bert said.
“Which shattered when it hit the floor,” Ruth added.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, looking at Ruth first then including Bert. “Is there anything I can do?”
“No, no. Just being here has been a tremendous help,” Bert said.
“Yes, just look at you,” Ruth said, looking at me clearly for the first time. “Why, you must have jumped out of bed and raced right over here.”
Ruth sounded more like her old self and was actually smiling as she studied me. I looked down at myself and smiled in spite of myself.
“I must be a sight.” I touched my hair and could tell it was a mess. I was wearing one of Bill’s old Sex Pistols t-shirts, which hung to my knees, and I’d forgotten to belt my robe closed. I noticed I’d also lost a slipper somewhere along the way.
“You should probably be getting home. You’ll need to get your kids ready for school soon,” Bert said.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” I asked Ruth.
She hugged me tight before answering. “Yes, I’ll be fine. Thank you so much for coming over.”
“No problem,” I said as I stood to go.
Bert walked me to the door, where he stopped and hugged me too.
“Thanks, Cami Jo.”
I walked between our two yards and saw the sky lighten to a pale pink on the eastern horizon. I realized Bert was right; I would need to get my kids off to school soon. I also realized I was incredibly tired.
I stepped through my front door and kicked something. I bent down and picked up my missing slipper. I tiptoed up to bed and had just fallen into a deep sleep when Bill’s alarm clock went off.