Conflict of Interest

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They were late for breakfast. And now, Grace understood. It was less about punctuality and more about self-indulgence.

The smell of salty bacon and sweet, caramelly, cinnamon rolls lured them up the driveway. Her feet ached from the walk in borrowed boots, but she wasn’t above running toward the heavenly scents.

They made their way to the front door and took stock of the new cars in the driveway that hadn’t been there before. New, meaning new to the driveway – not to the world. A rusty bronco was the first to pull in, and it now sat trapped by an old gray Buick and a shiny, light blue, Lincoln Continental. The clientele was not of their decade or any of the recent decades before that. Grace grinned at the car analysis and didn’t hold back her amusement.

Laughter and scratchy voices that only the wonder of age could create bellowed through the halls. Dishes clanked and silverware clinked. The clatter led them to the porch where a sprawling dining table sat. Floor to ceiling windows with thin, white, wooden frames were the walls that boxed them in. There were no shades or panels to block the light. Just simple drapes hanging loosely at their sides like flowing summer dresses. The floor was wooden to match the rest of the old house with a shaggy, soft rug nearly the size of the room sitting under the farmhouse table.

Steaming food and a mixture of orange and red flowers were scattered in the middle of the table. Sitting around the food were eight white and gray heads gossiping like they were seventeen.

“Don’t be late is right,” she joked behind her to where Luke had trailed, smiling as he took in the view.

“Don’t be late is right,” Luke confirmed as he caught up and ushered her closer to the table.

Their movement caught the eye of a four-foot-five frail woman, Marvel Shovel. Hair, so gray it looked blue, sat bound in a bun on the top of her head. Marvel could talk all day and every day about nothing at all but was usually the life of the party and the first one to bring you up if you were down. Marvel was the first to give a hoot and holler about the two handsome young people who had just walked in.

“Well, oh my goodness, what a sight these two are!” Her exclaim matched the speed at which she rocketed out of her chair to get a closer look. Her speed walk looked like she’d had a lot of practice circling malls.

“Aren’t you the most beautiful blonde-haired girl, I mean woman,” she corrected, “in the whole world. Darling,” she looked skyward to peer at Grace in admiration, “you are every bit of your name. In fact, you remind me a little of Grace Kelly. So elegant and pretty. We knew our Luke Aaron here was smart, but we didn’t give him nearly enough credit for snagging you as we should have. You’re the talk of the town. We’ve heard a lot about you, and so far, all good.”

They left Luke in the dust as Marvel linked her arm with Grace’s and walked her to the end of the bench where she was sitting.

“I tend to forget a little too much these days. I can’t remember what it is that you do?”

They both scooted in, and Grace smiled at the new, wrinkled faces at the table.

“I’m an accountant. I work for my dad’s company. I started there during college. Actually, before then, but that was mostly to see all of the people who worked there. And to eat the desk candy.” Grace added, not ashamed of admitting her young indulgence.

“My kind of girl.” A raspy, unsmiling tone interjected.

Rodney looked like a grumpy old man with a squished, square face. Glasses sat on the edge of his nose and looked as though they were going to fall into the scrambled eggs piled high on his plate. His smile came and went so quickly it was hard not to stare or to second guess that he’d actually done it at all.

She did a double-take just to be sure the noise had come from him. When the silence grew, Marvel piped-in once more.

“Edna, where are your manners? We need to do introductions!”

Edna rolled her eyes and rested her chin on her fist to let Marvel take the lead, not willing to exert the energy to remind Marvel that often when she was around, there wasn’t a lot of open airtime.

Marvel went around the table one by one, “Across from you is Sarah Barthel, she lives just down the road here, the first house when you pull into town. Next to her is Harold Barthel, Sarah’s husband of fifty years this year.”

Marvel paused just long enough to let Grace add congratulations before quickly moving on.

“Next to Harold is Rodney, the town grump, but we are willing to let him come have Saturday breakfast with us. We have to keep him around because he makes the best Christmas cookies.”

Christmas cookies? Why would a grumpy old man make Christmas cookies? And share them, which apparently he did, or they wouldn’t keep him, Grace mused.

“Kathy Brooks is next to him down there on the end.” Kathy gave a crooked-teeth smile and even more endearing than her smile was the bashful wave that followed.

“On the end of our bench here is the fearless breakfast leader. None of us would come without the great food all prepared by our Enda here. Between Edna and myself,” Marvel put a hand on a plump and what seemed to be a very tall woman, “is Rebecca. Rebecca owns the butcher shop in town, and her son, his wife, and their kids work it these days. Last but not least, next to Rebecca is Suzanne.”

Poor Suzanne didn’t get any additional description from Marvel. But she smiled brightly and took a sip of orange juice.

“Why don’t you slide a little farther in here with me so we can make room for that handsome devil over there?”

When all were settled around the table, Luke served the remaining empty plates with pancakes, sweet caramel rolls, bacon, sausage, eggs, and biscuits with gravy, for those that felt they had the room.

“Edna, this is incredible.” She stared at the mound of food on her plate, “Did you do all of this yourself?”

Edna beamed and showed a hint of pride, “I love to cook; it’s always been my thing. But it’s not as fun if you don’t have good people to feed. So, we’ve served breakfast every Saturday for…well?” She thought about it. “I guess since before Cliff died. Which will be eleven years this December. He and I loved having this brunch, so we keep on having it.”

Cliff. The way she said his name. It was like he was still with her. She didn’t know if it made her feel sad, or if she longed to have that kind of love.

Luke reached for her under the table and took hold of her hand without breaking stride in conversation.

“Luke, it looks like you snagged an accountant like yourself?” Harold inquired.

“I know perfection when I see it,” Luke said, giving her hand a squeeze.

The conversation ebbed and flowed, but lingered mostly on flow with the crew they had. Grace looked around and realized she felt just as much at home here as she did with her own family. The food, the noise, the love. She wanted to stay longer and hoped it wouldn’t be too long before they made another trip to Little Falls.

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