Sunday, April 2, 2017

I'm Lucky

I recognized her right away on this sunny Saturday morning—my neighbor in the apartment complex I'd moved into a month ago. She stood in the Super-Mart parking lot, grocery cart parked in front of her, her head swiveling, left then right.
In one arm she clutched a bag of groceries, in the other she held her three-year-old son Tommy. We weren't exactly strangers—Laura McGee, Tommy, and me. I'd nodded hello to them often in the complex hallway and had ridden the elevator with them several times to the fourth floor, our floor. We chatted a bit. Last week I helped Laura out of a jam I'm sure she'd like to forget.
Through those encounters, I learned she was a divorced single mom with a college degree in computer sciences who worked at home as a graphic designer, a mom totally devoted to her son. She knew I was single and one of three veterinarians opening a new clinic in town.
"Hi," I said, approaching slowly because I didn't want to frighten her or Tommy. "Something wrong?"
A smile chased away the scowl on her face, and her blue eyes brightened. "Oh, Ryan!" she said, swiping strands of her long dark hair out of her eyes. "I feel so stupid. I forgot where I parked my car."
I wanted to chuckle because the last time I'd talked to Laura, I'd helped her out of that jam I mentioned: She'd locked her keys to her old Honda Civic parked in the complex parking lot and couldn't get to the spare key; it was locked in her apartment. I'd managed to jimmy the car lock with a coat hanger—an old trick I'd learned as a kid growing up on a farm—and unlock the door. Now she couldn't find the car.
But instead of chuckling, I said, "Let's think. Which entrance to the store did you use?"
She shrugged. "What with mountains of work and the baby I don't know if I'm coming or going." Shielding her eyes from the sun, she gazed across the parking lot, then at the front of the store, where we stood. A blush flooded her cheeks. "This is the pharmacy entrance." She pointed. "I entered way back there—where they sell groceries."
"C'mon," I said. "I'll push the cart, and we'll find your car."
"You don't have to. You've been nice enough already."
"Nice is my specialty. C'mon."
We tromped across the lot to the grocery entrance, took a hard right, and found her car. I couldn't resist: "Got the key?"
She gave me a playful poke in the arm and then plucked her set of keys from the jeans pocket. "See?" she said, smiling a big beautiful smile that captured my heart.
"If you want," I said. "I'll unload these groceries into your trunk while you fasten Tommy into his car seat."
"You really are nice," Laura said, opening the trunk for me.
Minutes later, when I shut the trunk, the grocery cart empty, Laura stood next to me.
I cleared my throat. My feet shuffled. "Um...stop me if I'm straying off base here," I said. "But it seems to me that with a baby and a full-time, at-home job you never get out of the house, except maybe to grocery shop on Saturday."
"That's true," she said, "but Tommy and I are doing fine."
"Let's do something this afternoon, the three of us," I said, hoping I didn't run out of courage. "A picnic at the petting zoo, maybe. I'll bet Tommy would love that. He'll be ready to go."
Laura frowned. "You should have plenty of girlfriends. Why would you want to spend time with a frazzled, divorced mom?"
I held a hand up. "First of all, no girlfriend. Like you, I'm busy. But this seems like a perfect opportunity. Besides, I love kids. I'm the oldest of five—two younger sisters, two younger brothers. I grew up babysitting, and we all survived. Second, you're not frazzled. You just need a break."
Laura bit her bottom lip. She seemed to be thinking hard. Finally she said, "My mom is always telling me I need balance in my life."
"Always listen to Mom," I said, and cleared my throat again. "I haven't done my shopping yet. I'll buy hotdogs, buns—everything. I'll stop by at five, if it's a deal." I blew out a breath. I didn't know what to expect.
Laura folded her arms, and her wonderful blue eyes sparkled. "You really, really are nice," she said. "It's a deal."
A sheepish smile creeping across my face, I said, "I think I'm lucky."

The End
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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Chaser and the Chasee

On Sunday morning, I sat in a back booth of Red's Diner—a diner I owned, I might add—and studied the revised menu I was working on. I glanced toward the door when it opened.
A man dressed in a Marine Sergeant's uniform, rows of colorful ribbons decorating the left side of his chest, strode in, the door closing softly behind him.
Noah Murphy!
My heart lurched, and I dropped the pen in my hand.
He looked around the busy diner, studying the counter, the grill, the huge menu board above it...the booths, and that's when his eyes landed one me.
I gulped.
I bit my bottom lip.
My hands clenched.
The boy I'd chased and loved during high school but eventually lost—a man now deck out in a Marine uniform, only fifteen feet away.
His eyes widened. A smile flashing across his face, he approached slowly. The ten or twelve people eating breakfast in the diner, impressed at the sight of such a handsome man in uniform, turned to watch. When he stood over me, our eyes met, and my face flushed—bright red, I'm sure. His eyes were as blue as ever, his hair as blond as ever.
"May I?" he asked, nodding at the seat opposite me.
"Of course," I said, ignoring my thrashing heart. "The more customers the better."
"It's been awhile, Red," he said. "How have you been? You own the diner—I saw the big neon sign outside."
The sound of my nickname falling from his lips forced tons of memories to flash through my brain, and I touched my curly red hair without thinking. I'd chased Noah as a freshman and sophomore in high school and snagged him as a junior. I worked at the diner before and after school, usually, three or four days a week. The place turned out to be our favorite meeting spot and our hangout.
But by the time we were seniors, Noah had drifted away. He'd found another love, I was left broken hearted, and then he sailed off for a career in the Marines. I'd gone to college, studied business, worked at the diner during summers, and after graduation, with financial help from my folks, took it over.
We chatted as he devoured the breakfast I recommended: scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, coffee, and two pancakes on the side. My treat.
When my heart finally slowed down enough so I could talk straight, I asked point blank, "What are you doing here, Noah?"
"Retiring," he said, wiping his lips with a napkin. "Helping my folks move into assistant living. Buying the house."
"You're going to stay?" My eyebrows inched up. "Live here?"
"For the rest of my life," he said, sitting back. "I've served eight tours in the Middle East. I want peace and quiet"—he studied my face—"and all the other things I'd never found in the Marines."
My eyes flicked to his wedding-ring finger. Bare. I'm sure he'd seen mine was also bare.
"Best breakfast I've had in a long time," he said, and shoved his empty plates aside. "Maybe best ever." Then he smiled. "I owe you."
He left me with nothing more than another smile and a nod.
Abby, my BFF from high school, now my kitchen manager, rushed to take Noah's place across from me in the booth. "Oh my God, Allison!" she said, grabbing my hands, squeezing. "Is that him?"
I gulped again. "Yes."
"Married?"
"I don't think so."
"Don't let him get away this time, girlfriend!"
I'd never married. I'd had chances, but mostly I'd been too busy. I doubted Noah had come back for me. Throughout the twenty years he'd been gone, he'd visited his folks on leave but had never contacted me.
I sighed.
Still, it was great seeing him today, looking so fit and handsome.
The next Sunday, as I sat in that corner booth, tweaking the menu—my usual routine—he strode into the diner again. Dressed in jeans and a Marine T-shirt, he sat across from me.
"Hey," he said, a sheepish look creeping across his face.
"Hey."
"Allison Fisher," he said, his lips working, "I've finally admitted to myself I loved the redheaded girl I knew twenty years ago, the girl who chased me everywhere, the girl I treated so badly." His fingers inched across the table to touch mine. "Um...do you think after all this time I could become the chaser? Is there hope?"
I started at him for a long moment. Then I smiled and waved for a waitress. I squeezed his hand.
"We'll talk about it over breakfast," I said, my smile wider as he squeezed my hand back. "I'd love being the chasee this time," I added. "I really would."
The End
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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Table for Two

"Poor guy at table two looks like he's being stood up," my waitressing buddy Hazel said. "I asked him a half hour ago if he'd like to order. He said he was waiting for someone."
I studied the tall, lean man at table two.
I hadn't noticed him before because I'd been busy in the kitchen loading the dishwasher. Most of the Sunday morning breakfast crowd here at the Hickory Grove Restaurant had cleared out.
 Hazel said, "He's cute but looks sad...or hurt. "Then she winked at me. "Why don't you cheer him up?"
"I'll see if he's ready to order," I said, smiling at Hazel.
Married with three kids, Hazel was always trying to set me up with good-looking guys seated alone. She declared it was her mission to get me paired off with a guy before I graduated from college and quit my part-time job here.
I grabbed the water pitcher and approached the man's table. I spotted his cell phone and a bouquet of flowers wrapped in green tissue lying in front of him on the table. Without asking, I refilled his water glass.
"Thank you," he said, glancing at my nametag. "Crystal...that's a cool name."
I blushed a little. The man's startling blue eyes amazed me, and his crestfallen voice grabbed my heart. "Would you like to order?" I asked.
"I've been stood up," he said, raking his hand through his sandy-brown hair. "It's over—and I'm glad...I guess."
"Um...maybe whoever you're waiting for got caught in traffic."
He shook his head. "This is the last restaurant in town before the Interstate. She told me last night to meet me here at noon. If she wasn't here, she'd decided to leave town. We were finished." He picked up his cell phone and studied it. "She's not answering my text messages." He turned the cell off, shoved in his pocket, and said, "Would you like these flowers."
"They'd look nice in a vase the counter."
"Do that," he said.
While I arranged the flowers, I expected him to leave. But he didn't. Flashing another wink, Hazel said, "I think he's waiting for you."
"I think he's hungry and waiting for something to eat."
I was right. He ordered our breakfast special: eggs, pancakes, sausage links, hash browns, and toast. As I sprayed tabletops and wiped them down, I glimpsed him devouring his meal. His girlfriend's dumping didn't seem to bother his appetite. When I handed him his ticket, he smiled an awesome smile and asked, "Been working here long?"
"Four years," I said. "I'm a senior at our local college."
His eyebrows shot up. "I am, too—a senior. Photo journalism. Strange I haven't seen you on campus."
"It's a big place."
Then he exhaled a big breath and said, "Could we talk for a second? I'd like to ask you a question. I mean...if you have time."
"My shift's over," I said. "Wait a minute."
After clocking out, I sat at his table, wondering what was up with him.
He said his girlfriend visited over the weekend and insisted that after he graduated he join her father in the family-owned construction company.The disagreement had been a long-standing problem between them. Last night he flat out refused and this morning the girl left town. "The thing is," he said, "I think all of us are given one life, and there's no prize at the end for spending it on something we don't like." He paused. "Do you think I'm being selfish? I'd like an honest answer from a stranger. Someone who has no reason to lie to me."
My lips pursed. "I think we should all be the author of our own story," I said. "I'm majoring in elementary education—my parents are doctors and wanted me to be one, too."
He leaned back in his chair, his eyes crisscrossing me, as if he were admiring me. "That's awesome. What do you parents say?"
"They agree with me. Anyone who really loves you would have to agree."
Silence gripped us for a moment. I think each of us was absorbing what we'd just declared. Finally, he said, "Name's Brady Henderson" He held out a hand and we shook, his grip warm and firm in mine.
"Crystal McCloud."
"Could I walk you to your car?" he asked. "Maybe meet you on campus? We could talk more," he added hopefully.
I thought about it for only a second. "I'd like that," I said.
While we headed for the door, I glanced back at Hazel. The grin on her face was the biggest, lopsided grin I'd ever seen. Then she tossed me a wink.

The End
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Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Christmas Miracle

I ignore the Christmas trees leaning against the front window of Handy Hank's Hardware Store. The lovely green trees are for families. Not for me, a childless forty-year-old divorcee. Inside the store, Hank beams his megawatt smile—I love that smile. "Christmas Eve," he says, "and I've still got a few trees left.
Pick one. I'll deliver."
Hank McGrath's smile and his friendly, helpful attitude always warm my heart. If my divorce two years ago, after ten years of marriage, hadn't been so brutal, I don't know...maybe. Just maybe I could be interested in Hank.
But I shake all romantic thoughts from my brain and say, "Can't be bothered. I've got real problems—the water's running continuously in my toilet. I've shut the water off at the meter, but is there something else I can do?  A part I can buy?"
Hank's helped me with tons of problems I've had with the old but charming Victorian house I was awarded in my divorce settlement, so I'm not surprised when he says, "Probably needs a new flushing unit." He scratches his head of tousled, sandy hair. "Got several models in stock. We're closing early. I'll be over after work."
"I can't ask you to do that, Hank. It's Christmas Eve."
"You want to pay a plumber double time on a holiday? If you're lucky enough to find one." His blue eyes lock on mine. "Let me help."
I stopped for advice only, but I realize I'd be foolish to turn down Hank's offer. Perhaps after he finishes, by way of gratitude, I might talk him into sharing homemade pizza and a bit of red wine with me.
"All right," I say, but I'm thinking, Kimberly Stafford, is this really what you want?
On my way home, driving though a light snow, I mull over my situation. After my divorce, it took me nearly a year to realize the emotional roller coaster I was on with my husband was over, and now I'm happier than ever. I love my house. Love my freedom. Love my job as a second-grade schoolteacher. Why would I jeopardize my tremendous, newly found feeling of well being on another relationship?
In the kitchen, I use a bit of water from the jug in the fridge for making pizza dough, and I fry Italian sausage. All, just in case I have the nerve to ask Hank to stay.
While waiting, I'm biting my bottom lip. I'm sure he likes me. When we first met nearly a year ago, I spotted a wedding ring on his left hand. It wasn't until months later that he rather causally mentioned he was a widower. His wife died of cancer. I realized he probably wore the ring in memory of his wife, which I thought was a wonderful gesture. The next time I saw him at the store, though, the ring was gone, a pale white stripe replacing it on his finger.
Hank arrives at four-thirty in the afternoon, snow falling heavily now, the wind outside cold and bitter. He carries two small boxes in a plastic bag along with a couple of tools. "One of these units will surely work," he says. "Where's the bathroom?"
I point up the stairs. "First door on the left. I can't tell you how grateful I am."
"My pleasure," he says, beaming that megawatt smile again. My heart rate spikes, and I say a little breathlessly, "Would you like to stay for pizza after you finish?"
"Love to—thought I smelled something great cooking."
Hank finishes in the bathroom in no time and then strolls into the kitchen. "I'm going out to my truck. You can turn the water on, but wait a second before you put the pizza in."
I nearly fall over when Hank carries a five-foot Christmas tree into my living room, filling the room instantly with a delightful pine scent. "Figured you didn't have a tree," he says.  "And this little guy would've gone to waste." With a hopeful note in his voice, he asks, "You have ornaments? Lights?"
I gulp and feel tears creeping into my eyes. "Yes, stuffed away in a closet."
Laughing and jabbering like school kids, Hank and I trim the tree with brightly colored lights and ornaments—lights and ornaments I thought I might never use again. Like I thought I might never again have feelings for a man again.

But while Hank and I sit on the floor shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the tree, eating pizza, sipping wine, and admiring our work, a warm glow surges through me. I never thought I'd be part of a Christmas miracle.
I look at Hank and ask, "Do you believe in miracles?"
 This time his smile is shy, as is mine. His warm hand slipping into mine, he says, "Yes, I do."

The End
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